Aneesh Chopra is in a unique position. As the first chief technology officer (CTO) for the United States, he’s defining the role as he goes. During an interview with tech publisher Tim O’Reilly at the Government 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C., the U.S. CTO provided more perspective on what he does and what citizens and businesses alike might expect from the current administration.
The role of the U.S. CTO
Chopra describes himself as an assistant to the president, where he focuses on providing advice on technology policy. In his words, “my role is to bring tech innovation and advocate for policy,” where his “unit of output” is policy recommendations.
Chopra offered the example of hearing in Silicon Valley that “some of our public policies weren’t market-oriented or innovative.” In response, he convened a roundtable to rethink that approach. O’Reilly commented that it sounded like the role of the U.S. CTO was “a lot like a diplomat or ambassador.” Chopra says he’s a convener, pulling together officials in the government to address needs and using digital tools to gather feedback from citizens, businesses.
O’Reilly asked about his relationship with Vivek Kundra, the U.S. CIO. The dynamic between CIO and CTO is a point of interest in most large enterprises — the federal government brings that to a new level.
Chopra pointed to Kundra’s influence on procurement. “If we have influence on standards, research and development (with $150 billion in R&D spend), the third lever is procurement.” As Chopra observed, spending trends of billions on technology has an effect on market outcomes, citing $76 billion dollars spent on IT alone.
One of the buzzwords for in the new administration has been transparency. Chopra stated that “there should be accountability for each agency” and that “every agency will be directed to publish their open government plans” in response to the president’s open government directive. Chopra says that “there should be structured approach that is not tied to any particular White House.”
Governing by outcomes
O’Reilly pushed Chopra to look beyond social media or transparency, however, and consider “the bones of the government operating system,” citing the role that the federal government has already played in location technologies and the Internet backbone itself. Chopra said policy priorities include securing and improving the energy grid and cybersecurity. He said he sees “potential in government as a platform” but was clear “we will make investments based upon whether the platform will be utilized.”
He offered as examples the systems of incentives for physicians and electronic health record conversion, where healthcare entities “will get an incentive payment if they can demonstrate they are using the technology in a meaningful way.”
Chopra provided an example of how healthcare IT is being applied, explaining that research data is being gathered from “every single veteran who receives a procedure in a cath lab” in a veterans’ administration hospital. “Less than 10 minutes later, the physician gets a handheld device to draw what he did in each of the 70 VA hospitals. That’s then sent to a database at the American Institute of Cardiology.” Chopra says such data is protected under appropriate privacy and anonymity provisions. “That database probably submits the lion’s share of the digital data that can be mined by cardiologists,” says Chopra.
Preparing for “business” continuity
Chopra also focused on education and the upcoming flu season, reflecting the concerns of the CIO of the CDC about swine flu. “We’ve been invested heavily in digital learning,” said Chopra. “There’s now a healthy debate — especially in light of H1N1 concerns — what would happen if a school had to close for two or three weeks?” He referred to the H1N1 “Continuity of Learning” memo issued by HHS and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Providing virtual means for students and teachers to continue education efforts in the event of a healthcare disaster is clearly in play.
In other words, the U.S. CTO is worried about disaster recovery, getting the most from technology investments and remaining accountable to customers and clients -– not so different from the role of the classic enterprise CTO at all.