The Interview: Aneesh Chopra

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The outgoing chief technology officer of the United States talks SOPA, open government, and MacGyvering an innovations policy for the country.

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When the president needs advice on technology policy, he calls on Aneesh Chopra. As the first Chief Technology Officer of the United States, a post created by Barack Obama as the manifestation of a campaign promise, Chopra is charged with advising the president about where technology and innovation can spur job growth, boost industry, and improve quality of life for 21st century Americans when it comes to energy, education, health care, and more. After two and three-quarter years in the U.S. CTO seat, Chopra, 39, who holds joint titles as assistant to the president and associate director for technology in the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the Executive Office of the President, is leaving the president's service Wednesday. Chopra cut his teeth in the consulting world, as managing director of the Washington, D.C., health care and education think tank the Advisory Board Company (founded by Atlantic Media Company Chairman David G. Bradley). He moved into government to do a stint as Secretary of Technology for the state of Virginia, but there was still plenty he had to learn on the job once in the White House, he says, when it comes to how you go about pushing the country towards innovation from that perch.

What is the elevator pitch on what you've been doing since you were named Chief Technology Officer of the United States?

What I do is advance the president's innovation agenda by incorporating his bottom-up theory of change. To be very specific about it, I execute the president's innovation strategy in a manner that taps into the expertise of the American people to solve big problems.

If you look at what you have had a hand in during your tenure, it's a wide range of things: crafting and executing the Open Government Initiative, advancing emergency responder network interoperability, pushing wireless technologies, launching digital public participation projects, tracking federal spending online, talking about technology quite a bit at various conferences, working on private-public partnerships like Startup America, to name just a few. Is that too big a job for one person?

No. Let me be very specific. As an advisor to the president, I have three main responsibilities. To make sure he has the best information to make the right policy calls for the country, which is a question of my judgment. I then help propagate his policies by facilitating interagency collaboration and making sure we're all rowing in the same direction. And then I collaborate with the private sector, which is not so much about "Give me your ideas on policy" as it is, "How might we work together to advance the president's priorities in manner consistent with the innovation economy?" So, no, I don't think that's too big of a job for one person.

So you're really more of an advisor and convener than implementer?

Yes, and I'd argue that that's what's needed most. The new title I hold is as an assistant to the president, which means that I report directly to him. That's brand new. I sit at the senior staff meeting every morning. On any topic that is a priority for the president, my role is evaluate how technology, data, and innovation can advance, support, and improve upon those strategies. In my capacity as assistant to the president, I'm a cabinet-rank member of the National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council.

Deputy directors of the Office of Science and Technology Policy aren't regularly sitting in on senior staff meetings?

That's my point. The salary I draw is the same that has been drawn for decades. I'm the Senate-confirmed "T" in OSTP. But the assistant to president and CTO are administrative decisions that the president made when he revised the orders establishing the National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council in his first months in office. It's a lot different than an operating role. For example, the e-government administrator role inside the Office of Management and Budget has clearly articulated responsibilities that Congress has approved, tangible things for which you need a staff, a budget, and everything else.

As an advisor, what buttons are available for you to push?

We have four policy levers that reflect our open innovation philosophy. We're opening up data for innovators and entrepreneurs. We're taking on the role of impatient convener. We're initiating prizes, challenges, and competitions. And we're attracting top talent at the intersection of technology and policy.

In opening up data, one of the examples that inspires me is Green Button, a concept where data holders are allowed secure, timely, and computer-friendly access to their own information. [Ed. -- Green Button is a White House initiative that aims to allow energy consumers to easily download their usage data.] We've also launched Data.gov communities. It's one thing to have Data.gov as a repository of data. It's another thing to foster a thriving ecosystem that creates opportunities in research and development. And we now have countless examples of companies creating valuable products or services powered by open data.

In acting as an impatient convener, my favorite example is the work that we've done on standards. We recently published a memorandum on the principles of engagement in federal standards.

In the blog post announcing the release of that memorandum, you and the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology wrote about the importance of setting the size and shape of electrical outlets, as an example of how standardization can advance the American economy. What is a more modern example of that principle?

If you want to stick with the socket theme, look at the standards by which electrical vehicles communicate with utilities. Imagine if GM has its own socket and Ford has it own socket. We've introduced a technology, the electric power vehicle, which needs to connect to utilities in a different way than it connects to gas stations. We have private sector companies who are building their own technologies, with different battery systems and so forth. Wouldn't it be great if they were interoperable, so that the utility company creates one socket, and GM, Ford, Chrysler, and Toyota can all plug in?

It's called the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, and more than a thousand people participate. It represents the mature, convening role of government, which builds on private sector innovation but that nudges everyone towards swimming in the same direction.

It's been reported that President Obama's smart grid initiative was one of the technology projects he came into office excited about, but found himself stymied by what's possible for a president to do.

That's one of my legacy deliverables, this vision for smart grid. We have a whole White House strategy that absolutely works within current legal constraints. We launched SmartGrid.gov to share evidence-based best practices and help state regulators understand what investments work and why, so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel with 50 different regulatory proceedings about what a smart grid is and isn't. We're just getting started in some of this, but we're absolutely at the tip of the spear in gathering an evidence base and sharing it. There's no reason why the federal government can't gather information and publicize it without invoking regulatory authority. And we've gotten endorsements from state regulators, so you get the sense that we've worked well in this federalism model.

Another wonderful resource we have is ARPA-E [Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy], and we have ARPA-E awardees who are looking at modernizing our nation's electrical grid. The same way a Cisco router moves information around, can we apply that logic to energy sources? And we're working with communities who want to empower energy consumers with better data so that they can make better decisions.

We're absolutely pulling on the levers we have the authority to pull on. We're essentially MacGyvering an innovation policy, trying to pull the right toolkit out of the tool box.

The White House's Open Government Initiative focuses on three areas: transparency, participation, and collaboration. Can you rate the progress that has been made on each thus far?

I'm the wrong person to grade them, but I will rank them. That might be safer. We've seen great results in transparency, and we have absolutely delivered. It's never enough, for sure, but I'm very pleased with our experience opening up data. We've seen wide-spread adoption of publishing data [in the executive branch]. I'm, ah, excited about the prospects of collaboration, because so much of the open innovation story is built on collaboration and the idea that to solve the big challenges of our time, we're going to have to tap into the expertise of the American people. In the markets where we've focused, we've seen results -- they just haven't scaled across government. And on participation, the arrow is trending up. There were a lot of regulatory and administrative burdens that made it very hard to take advantage of social media and other techniques, but we've spent the last year and a half minimizing the barriers.

You're starting to see that with We the People, the Google "hangout," and the whole range of participatory attributes led by the White House and [Director of Digital Strategy] Macon Phillips. There, we're starting from a smaller base of success, but it has been dramatically scaling in the last several months.

When we talk about transparency, to some in the open government community, there's always, as you say, a desire for more, more, more...

Remember, the quote-unquote open government community itself is dramatically variable. There's the open government folks who want data to create products. There's the open government folks who want to hold folks accountable. When you say, "the open government community," it depends on whose story you're talking about.

Okay, so let's talk here about the transparency wing of the open government community. An argument they make is that, in the first years of the Open Government Initiative, what has been accomplished has been the standardizing and publishing of data that isn't politically problematic, even if it has the potential to be enormously powerful. But releasing information held by government that might be more politically challenging -- stickier -- has been put on the backburner. Is that fair?

Here's my push back on that. This president publishes the WAVES [White House visitor] records, the single-most database held secret by every president before him because of all of the gotcha, the who, what, where. He made a very conscious decision to publish that information. So for folks to say that we weren't willing to publish sticky stuff, just look at the WAVES decision -- how can you argue that that's anything but in the camp of stuff that you say that they're not so happy about?

The information that we have at the White House that we can disclose, we do. It's back to the agencies to disclose their information. The default setting is open, not closed, and we have put in place security and privacy regulations. We have dramatically lowered our FOIA backlogs. So, it's really hard.... I mean, you can disagree and say, "Well, that's not really a national security issue," but there are other agencies and their mechanisms. At least those conversations are being had.

The good news is that we don't have a one-size-fits-all plan. The Transportation Department, for example, decided as part of its open government plan that it would inventory all of its data sets, which makes it easier for folks to say, "Hey, that's interesting. Can you publish that?" We architected the Open Government Initiative to allow for that kind of creativity inside the agencies, just as much as we wanted to set some kind of floor. Those are the risks and rewards. If you want a highly-specified open government plan that gets ordered from the top down, that's a different plan than what I came up with as a recommender, and what the Office of Management and Budget published, because that's what I heard from the American people.

Can you talk about the process behind the administration's response on the Stop Online Piracy Act, a response that was delivered through We the People?

SOPA/PIPA is exactly what We the People was meant to do. Traditionally, Congress formally requests a Statement of Administration Policy, called a "SAP." Requests for SAPs come in all the time from Congress. We respond based on the dynamics of Washington, priorities and timelines. One would argue that a Washington-centric approach would have have been to await the request for a SAP and publish it, oftentimes when a major vote is happening. If you contrast that were SOPA/PIPA was, still in committee or just getting out of committee, and not yet on the floor, traditionally a White House would not issue a SAP that early. So the train we were on, the routine Washington line of business, we would have awaited the right time to issue a SAP, and done it at congressional request. It just wasn't time yet. The We the People process flipped upside-down to whom we are responsible for providing input.

In gathering over a hundred thousand signatures, on SOPA/PIPA, the American people effectively demanded a SAP.

Even if they didn't know what to call it?

That's right. It was a phenomenal experience, process wise, in delivering an administration position. To be sure, we would have issued the same position whether it was asked of use in a traditional SAP process or not. What we said wasn't really changed by the We the People process. It was when we said it and to whom we said it that changed.

Why did the technology community seem so ineffective in getting its voice heard before the SOPA/PIPA experience?

I'm of two minds on this. If you're asking me, does the quote-unquote tech community have a strong Washington presence to leverage the traditional models and tools of Washington, that's an open question. One can draw one's own conclusions.

But if you ask me, are we effectively incorporating the ideas of the tech industry in shaping policy, I think the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Look at our health IT strategy, informed in great part by thinking about how the Internet works. Think about what we've done on a whole range of wireless initiatives, on Internet policy principles, on open government in the context of fueling new startups. They all reflect opportunities for the tech community to engage in Washington in a lower-case "w" way. Does that effect the minutia of congressional action day-in-and-day-out? That's not something for me to talk about.

How do you and the U.S. Chief Information Officer, which is now Steve VanRoekel, divide up responsibilities on the president's open government portfolio?

Steve's leadership is largely about governing the use of information technology within the walls of government. We spend $80 billion [a year]. We make investments every day. We have failed projects and we have successful projects. His charge is to increase the value for the American taxpayer for the internal IT spend. My focus is how to harness technology, data, and innovation to effect the external world -- hospitals, utilities, schools... They absolutely meet in the middle, because the more that our internal IT systems have the capacity to open up and simplify access to data and other programming tools, the easier it is for the outside world to ingest that information and build products and services. So it's inside ball and outside ball.

When you were named, there was a push to create the U.S. Chief Technology Officer position through statute, rather than by executive order. That measure's champion recently said that there's still a concern that the next presidential administration isn't necessarily going to value technology as much as the Obama administration might have. Thoughts?

I'll share my personal perspective. It's pretty hard to force trust and judgment, so if you have a president that just doesn't care you can't force him to invite an individual to senior staff meetings or have him or her sit on policy councils. That's where judgments are made by the president as to the kind of advice he or she would like and from whom.

Describe President Obama's personal engagement with technology.

In every single policy discussion that I've had with the president, he has asked the absolute right questions. He seems to synthesize technical or complicated material to know exactly where the pressure points are, and he raises them without hesitation. I can guarantee you, you walk into the room and he is well prepared and he knows what questions to ask to suss out the tensions that are out there. I'm unbelievably impressed with his level of engagement and the questions he asks. He absolutely believes in the philosophy of bottom-up change and the potential for technology and innovation to help realize that.

What framework is the president using to think through questions of technology?

I would use the words "true north" to describe his philosophy, where true north is that for every difficult question there's an objective right answer. You ask the right questions and gather the right evidence. There's little ideological to the questions that I work on. I wouldn't know who is up or down politically based on the work that I do. That's just not a conversation that we have. Everything is about the data. Everything is about the evidence. Everything is about what works.

You've been talked about as a potential candidate for statewide office in Virginia. What's next for you?

I'm still on my day job. I'm still working twenty-four by seven to make sure the president's technology and innovation agendas are advanced. So I'm not thinking about that right now. I'll take some time when I leave to think through what I might want to do next. I can assure you that my top priority will be to advance the jobs and industries of the future through open innovation principles. I'm hopeful that the president will be re-elected in 2012, so I will be working in my personal capacity to ensure that the president, and Governor Kaine, my former boss [now running for the Senate], both have the chance to serve our great country. Those are my priorities.

As to my personal interests, we're a long way from that conversation.

Who do you see as your successor, the second-ever Chief Technology Office of the United States?

I'm highly confident that the president will make an incredible selection, and I'm hopeful that it will happen sooner rather than later. But that's above my pay grade.

Image credit: Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons

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Nancy Scola is an Atlantic correspondent based in New York City, whose work focuses on the intersections of politics and technology. She has written for Capital New York, Columbia Journalism Review, GOOD, New York, Reuters, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect. More

Previously, Scola was an aide on the U.S. House of Representative's Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a tech-policy staffer for a short-lived presidential campaign, and a nonprofit research designer in Washington, D.C.

For three years, she wrote and edited techPresident, a popular daily blog and email newsletter produced by the Personal Democracy Forum. While at techPresident, she co-created and helped to lead Vote Report '08, an early use of mobile technologies to conduct election monitoring.

Her passions include women's soccer, New York City history, cheese, copyright law, the genius of Lauryn Hill, New York State politics, long-form non-fiction, amateur radio, sharks and bears, political boundaries, magazines, maritime culture and waterfronts, how institutions work, typography, the African continent, and public parks.

Scola has two degrees in anthropology, was born in northern New Jersey, and, after about a decade in the nation's capital, now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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