Hyperbolic testimonials are common immediately following a political appointment. It happened a month ago after President Barack Obama tapped fast-rising Washington, D.C., chief technology officer Vivek Kundra to become the nation's first-ever CIO. And it has happened again this week, to some degree, when the president announced Virginia Technology Secretary Aneesh Chopra as the country's chief technology officer.
After all, one commentator wrote glowingly that Chopra is a "rock star."
An exaggeration or not, it's hard to ignore the public sector's effusive praise and admiration for the 36-year-old Chopra's accomplishments in three years working for Virginia. Now observers are curious to see if Chopra and Kundra together can effect real change for the federal government.
Alan Shark, the CEO and executive director of the city- and county-focused Public Technology Institute, called Chopra's appointment to the CTO post a strong win for state and local government.
"Chopra is as incredibly charismatic as he is incredibly competent. He is realistic - not a bureaucrat - and a strategic thinker," Shark said. "He's not an 'empty suit,' and he grasps how the new social media and Web 2.0 can be a positive game-changer for government."
Shark said it's no accident that Virginia was the best-managed state during Chopra's tenure. (Last year the National Association of State Chief Information Officers awarded Virginia first-place honors for technology management.)
Chopra took the role of Virginia's change agent for technology by championing projects such as the Physics Flexbook, a Web-based open source textbook that supplements existing materials. He backed a social network built on Ning to connect health-care clinicians in small towns. He also initiated a scorecard system to rate the performance of Virginia's state agencies, and launched a one-stop Web site for business-to-government transactions and services.
"He knows and understands technology inside and out, and he knows how to deliver technology policies in a highly political environment. The fact that he comes from a local perspective can only be 'good to excellent' for cities and counties," Shark added.
In Virginia, Chopra started a $2 million Productivity Investment Fund that operates like venture capital: Some projects will work; others will fail. That's a stark departure from the typical government ethos that all projects must succeed.
"I'm hoping he will continue to do more of that -- through outreach and also making sure spending gets down to the local level, where it needs to end up," said Leslie Fuentes, IT director of Hampton, Va. "Maybe he can come up with an innovation pool [coming from the federal government] that localities would be able to directly apply for, instead of going through the states all the time."
Chopra's ultimate success in his new job will likely depend upon his interplay with Kundra and newly named chief performance officer Jeffrey Zients, said Dave McClure, an analyst for consultancy Gartner.
Kundra is working under Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, while Chopra will report to John Holdren in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
"I think all of it's going to revolve around the reporting relationship that's established, and the synchronization and strategy being pursued at Vivek's more operational, hands-on government role, and Aneesh's bigger picture, overall strategy direction for the role of technology in government. Meshing those two together is going to be the key for their success," McClure said, "and the chief performance officer must be the lynchpin who makes it all work."
Kundra and Chopra are friends, and they worked on Obama's advisory team that studied technology policy during the
campaign season and the presidential transition. Both men have enjoyed what could be described as "meteoric" ascensions to the topmost echelon of policy-setting for government IT. But their journey ahead could be complicated or even politically perilous.
Case in point: Some are already complaining that Recovery.gov is toothless and that Kundra's vision for a publicly available one-stop Web site for government data could be chaotic and difficult to manage.
Enacting innovation could be especially challenging right now, McClure said, because the federal government has been handed the unprecedented dual role of managing two funding streams: economic stimulus money and day-to-day operational budgets.
"We've never before had transparency being done at the federal level to this scale or magnitude in this kind of time frame, so really -- it's not really a new reporting environment -- we're talking about a new way of government holding itself accountable," McClure said.