AS THE NATION’S FIRST CTO, Aneesh Chopra MPP 1997 found himself in the perfect position to further his longtime passion for smarter, leaner government—a cause he continues to champion through his writing, a few start-up ventures, and an unstoppable zeal for bringing a new perspective to bear on some of the nation’s longest-standing challenges.
Aneesh Chopra’s first experience of government occurred in 1983, when he was just 11 years old. Train tracks ran near the border of the family’s Plainsboro, New Jersey, subdivision, and Chopra had seen other children playing dangerously close to the unsecured area. He told his father, and that is how Chopra found himself raising his hand to describe the situation and ask for help at a town hall meeting led by their congressman.
Nothing and everything came out of that moment. No fence was ever built to make the area safer—but just over 25 years later, Chopra’s vantage point had changed considerably from the drab government building where as a child he made a case for change. Appointed the first U.S. chief technology officer in 2009, Chopra, who had already served as secretary of technology under Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, suddenly found himself reporting directly to President Barack Obama.
He was also very much in the public eye—on a national scale. In one of his early media appearances, Chopra made a live, televised announcement of the Open Government Initiative via the Whitehouse.gov website, flubbing his opening lines and laughing before recovering. The only clip picked up by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart featured Chopra’s gaffe. Jon Stewart’s deadpan response: “What’s so funny, Indian George Clooney?”
Stewart’s quip has dogged Chopra ever since, but his slipup did bring national attention to open government—a topic whose relevance and potential for change exist in direct disproportion to its sexiness. Chopra left his CTO post in 2012 to run for Virginia lieutenant governor and lost in the primary, but two years later he found himself back on Jon Stewart’s show, this time to discuss his book Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government. Packed with stories and examples of how government can leverage technology to achieve dramatic, low-cost results, Innovative State is a playbook that distills Chopra’s passion for bringing about greater efficiency, transparency, and collaboration in solving the nation’s challenges in health care, education, unemployment, infrastructure, and energy through the power of bits and bytes—a goal that even the most entrenched politicians can agree on.
“I wrote the book to lay out a hopeful vision for how we might solve problems regardless of political party or debate around the size and scope of government,” Chopra said in a phone interview from his office at NavHealth, an open data “intelligence service” focused on population health. (NavHealth aggregates and analyzes data to help “accountable care organizations” anticipate and inform a patient’s journey, the ultimate goal being improved care at a lower cost.) Chopra incubated the venture with Sanju Bansal and Dan Ross, his cofounders of Hunch Analytics, an open data analytics “hatchery.”
Innovative State reinforces a key message for policymakers, says Chopra: Technology is a tool they should consider using with greater frequency, particularly for issues that feel like they’re stuck in the mud. Think different, in other words. Leverage cloud computing, big data, crowdsourcing, and mobile computing power to tackle problems, using creative methods that are less costly and more effective.
Chopra’s book also targets entrepreneurs and innovators who will build the last mile of many of these solutions. “An innovative state is defined by handshakes and handoffs,” he says. The handshakes are in place, he explains, because Republicans and Democrats agree that the government should allow access to data that doesn’t violate individual privacy rights or compromise national security. Then comes the handoff to the private sector: “There’s money to be made and good to be done if you can take the baton and build goods and services that help people live better lives.”
LEVERAGING OPEN GOVERNMENT DATA in public-private partnerships was one focus of Chopra’s stint as an inaugural Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow this past spring, an appointment he shared with Nick Sinai, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer. (Chopra also serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.) “There’s a whole new science of policymaking and problem solving around open data and open innovation that we wanted to foster in our discussions with students,” says Chopra, whose self-described mode is to “speak, lead, cajole, encourage, and noodge” policy change at all levels to realize his vision of a smarter, more efficient, more effective government.
One effort he cites from his time as CTO is the National Wireless Initiative, announced by President Obama in early 2011 to address demand for more wireless spectrum. “Imagine an eight-lane highway that reserves four for commercial use and has reached congestion because every day more cars are on the road,” he says. “A good chunk of the remaining lanes are held or licensed by the government and could be made available for commercial broadband use.”
Chopra notes that seeds for the initiative were planted during a five-hour roundtable discussion on growing the economy held by the president with 25 CEOs, no lobbyists, and few staffers. An additional meeting convened by Chopra with CTOs from mobile broadband providers and their supply chain provided further input and eventually led to the Wireless Initiative, which saw the government release more of its spectrum for commercial broadband use.
“This is an idea that was born out of thoughtful discussion and deliberation,” Chopra says. “It’s an example of private sector input resulting in a presidential commitment that was taken to the Hill in a bipartisan way and signed into law within a year.” An auction of government wireless spectrum authorized by the law generated $45 billion, part of which was used to fund FirstNet, a nationwide interoperability network for police officers and firefighters—last check on the 9/11 Commission’s to-do list. Some of the proceeds will also be invested in R&D and incentives for developing the next generation of mobile broadband.
“As a result,” says Chopra, “there is much more capital investment in this space because smarter government found a way for the private sector to succeed and the American people to benefit from it. That has to be one of my favorite stories.”
CHOPRA WAS INFECTED BY THE POWER of technology’s potential early on. He graduated from Johns Hopkins with a degree in public health in 1994—just as the Internet was beginning to pick up steam—and witnessed the intoxicating effects of Netscape’s 1995 IPO while working at Morgan Stanley. A few years later, as a student at the Kennedy School, he assisted with a team-taught course on the business, legal, and policy implications of the Internet that drew in professors from the business and law schools as well as the Kennedy School. Post-HKS, he worked for the Advisory Board, a research and consulting firm focused on health care and education.
Just over 20 years into a career devoted to butting up against some of the country’s most unmovable challenges, Chopra’s default mode is still one of energetic, unstoppable optimism, although he acknowledges obstacles that include a legacy infrastructure of old systems and equipment and a government culture that tends to fixate on the next new thing instead of transforming what is already in place. But people working in government are mission-driven, Chopra says. Government workers who are freed up to look for innovative ways to use or release government data can find a path to change that fulfills their sense of purpose even in the face of policy gridlock and shrinking budgets.
Citizen-users can also be a source of quick, low-cost change. When he was asked as CTO to help advise the start-up Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Chopra celebrated the agency’s approach to simplifying the mortgage disclosure form. With his encouragement, the team went into “lean start-up” mode, crowdsourcing feedback from more than 17,000 participants who weighed in from across the country via a website. The form went through six iterations in less than six months, resulting in a simplified version with easier-to-understand disclosures.
Another, more recent open government effort is Veterans Talent, a collaboration that includes Hunch Analytics and other partners. The initiative came about in response to President Obama’s call in August 2011 for employers to hire 100,000 veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq—a bold appeal with a few initial stumbling blocks. How could veterans tell which potential employers were trying to heed the president’s call to action? And how could employers interpret a veteran’s skills and potential when the language used by military and civilian organizations to describe experience and job requirements is often so different?
Veterans Talent worked with open government data that aggregated unemployed veterans’ skills and technology companies such as Workday, LinkedIn, and Monster to discover the demand for skills in job postings by employers that had indicated a veteran-hiring commitment. The initiative, still at the proof-of-concept stage, demonstrated the potential for workforce development programs to adopt a model that focuses more on skills than on job titles—that way, veterans whose skills in the military make them tech-trainable can be considered for entry-level tech jobs even if they don’t have formal technology credentials.
Whatever the challenge at hand, Chopra can envision a solution that somehow leverages the triple threat of public-private partnerships, technology, and open government. Yes, he says, we are still in the early days of achieving a truly “innovative state” as described in his book. But change is happening, and demand and other economic forces will continue to drive a new reality wherein more and more services traditionally provided by government may come from the private sector.
“Imagine having perfect information on the right school and program to maximize your child’s earning potential based on his or her underlying skills and talents,” says Chopra. It’s yet another example of big data at work, this one hypothetical, but he’s just picking up steam: “That’s a bit extreme, but if you look at the data of how many minority and underprivileged kids don’t even apply to the schools they qualify for—it’s a huge missed opportunity that could change their lives. Imagine if there was an app that supported the guidance system that could better advise these kids.”
That’s Chopra’s call to action: Imagine it. Try something new. Fail and try again. Open up innovation processes to users and frontline workers. Leverage technology in new ways. All these actions may use new and unfamiliar muscles, but exercising those muscles is how a path is cleared, bit by bit. It’s the sort of work that can deliver results, or at least start a dialogue—as Chopra learned by raising his hand in that town hall meeting so many years ago.