EXCLUSIVE: Chopra's equation: Ideas + Relevance=Innovation

Wednesday - 6/3/2009, 7:13am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

Part 2 of an exclusive interview with the Federal CTO

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
FederalNewsRadio

NORFOLK, Va. -- Coming soon to federal, state and local governments: the application store where thousands of vendors and entrepreneurs developed innovative software tools to make government services better, faster and cheaper.

That is how Aneesh Chopra, the federal chief technology officer, explains in a straightforward and simplistic way how he sees innovation affecting government.

"It may be an app someone builds and you can download and improve it marginally to meet your needs and the marginal cost of that adoption should be low," says Chopra in an exclusive interview with FederalNewsRadio. "We are not saying one vendor rules them all, but we want to have thousands of entrepreneurs to bid on this kind of work. It may be more modest in scope but they will be able to solve discreet problems, and over time I imagine having thousands of apps all speaking to an issue. We will get there, but it still is a vision at this time."

Chopra, who was confirmed by the Senate May 21 to be CTO and Associate Director for Technology, still is developing specific goals, but detailed four broad priorities Tuesday at the Management of Change conference sponsored by the American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council (ACT/IAC).

"I'm in listening mode and visiting with colleagues right now looking to see how I can be helpful in advancing the President's agenda," he says.

Chopra's four priorities include:

  • Making sure the government transforms the nation's economy through technology innovation. This includes relooking at the federal research and development agenda and figure out how to drive innovation through policy, Chopra says.

  • Bringing innovation to the President's priorities such as health care, climate change, energy, economic improvement and education. "Game changing ideas often don't need to change policy, but can work within existing policy and accomplish the goal better, faster and cheaper," he says.

  • Delivering a reliable, resilient and trustworthy infrastructure. Chopra will focus on helping to develop a broadband plan by February and on cybersecurity. He says his work on cybersecurity will emphasize "game changing research and development, and collaboration with the private sector" to improve critical infrastructure.

  • Creating a culture of open and innovative government. Chopra says he will work with federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra, the General Services Administration and others to "build capacity in the federal government for a culture of openness transparency."

President Barack Obama already kicked off the open government initiative by challenging the major agencies to develop one significant transparency initiative in 2009.

Chopra says he is charged with working with agencies to come up with those initiatives and ensure there are results in a matter of weeks, not months or years.

He says this program is one approach to getting agencies to buy into the concept of innovation.

"As we release the projects and get results, we instill greater confidence that these things are possible," Chopra says. "That is culture change."

He uses his experience with the Virginia Commonwealth government as an example of this approach working.

Chopra says Governor Tim Kaine created a $3 million innovation fund and asked commonwealth agencies to submit ideas.

"The first year we offered grants to agencies, agency heads applied for relatively lame concepts that were unfunded things that the budget department said 'no' to," he says. "We didn't fund many of those projects because we didn't want to be the second door for bad budget ideas. But after we tried to educate folks on the spirit on this, folks more junior in the organization had comfort that they could present ideas and agency heads would champion them. Now they have a robust portfolio of 30 projects that will calculate 4.8 to 1 return on taxpayer investment."

He adds that in less than two years state employees embraced innovation.

Part of the approach to bring innovation to every agency is having ideas that are relevant.

"Relevance is defined by outcome goals or, in my case, presidential outcome goals," Chopra says. "We have clarity around relevance or we are in the process of getting that kind of clarity as agencies rethink their approach to outcomes based management. Ideas can be technology based or not technology based. The culture either welcomes new ideas or prohibits them from kissing the light of day. But by having an organization, a CTO, that essentially is a safe place where ideas can match up with relevance is the challenge at hand."

He adds that his office will look at best practices from the public and private sectors, and try to emulate them in government. Sometimes the innovation may happen at the state and local level with minimal contribution or impact on the federal agency, or the innovation will cut across all levels of government.