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.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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