April 21, 2009 By Steve Towns, Editor
In choosing Aneesh Chopra to be federal chief technology officer, President Barack Obama tapped one of state government's more innovative and energetic IT officials. The move, announced Saturday, offers more evidence that Obama is serious about using technology to change the way Washington works.
Serving as Virginia's secretary of technology since 2006, Chopra has tried to stretch the boundaries of traditional government IT -- particularly in areas like education and transparency. Teaming Chopra with the like-minded Vivek Kundra, who was named federal CIO in March, gives Obama a powerful force for technological transformation -- although they'll both have their hands full trying to change entrenched federal agencies.
The 36-year-old Chopra, like his friend Kundra, chafes government's traditional pace. In Virginia, he looked for ways to spur innovation and break bureaucratic logjams.
For instance, Chopra helped create Virginia's Productivity Investment Fund, which provides seed money for innovative, high-risk ideas for improving government. The fund is designed to let the state experiment with creative initiatives without subjecting them to the often-crushing state budget process.
"It turns out that innovation in Virginia had historically been driven by the budget ... so there was basically a two-year lag time at the fastest," Chopra said at an e.Republic event late last year. "You can imagine the frustration of folks who were looking to drive innovation. We wanted to set a mechanism internally where state employees -- who have incredibly creative ideas -- could come forward in a safe environment outside of the budget and could present their business case."
Projects supported by the fund include a Web resource that provides quality ratings, parent feedback and regulatory compliance data for childcare and preschool programs in Virginia. The fund also launched a pilot initiative by the Virginia Department of Corrections to give released inmates cash cards instead of paper checks -- a move that's expected to save about $10 per inmate.
As one of the nation's few state-level technology secretaries, Chopra had a broad mandate to use information technology to simplify government, improve public services and strengthen Virginia's position in the innovation economy. Some of his most innovative work focused on education, which dovetails with Obama's goal of strengthening math and science performance for U.S. students.
Chopra helped lead Virginia's effort to create a single curriculum that would quickly let high-school dropouts earn a GED credential and prepare them for technology jobs. That effort came in conjunction with Virginia's initiative to outsource state government IT functions and locate some of those jobs in rural areas.
"Those areas have large numbers of young adults without high school diplomas," Chopra said. "The challenge we were grappling with was both a work-force need and a retooling of our educational infrastructure."
He was also instrumental in creating an open-source, Web-based physics textbook designed to supplement outdated traditional materials.
"We do a lot of semiconductor exports in Virginia. It's our No. 1 manufactured export in the state. We have absolutely no exposure to spintronics or any of the other methodologies of how we think this platform will look in the future. This whole concept of emerging technologies is absent from the textbooks," Chopra said.
Chopra's solution was to line up voluntary contributors to an online "flexbook" that provides up-to-date information on emerging technologies. In March, Virginia released the first version of the resource, which contained contributions from 13 K-12 teachers, industry representatives and university faculty.
"The textbook industry had the nerve to tell us at a public hearing, 'Well we think by 2011 we're going to have the capability of a more Web-based model where you can piece and add and modernize,'" he said. "That wasn't good enough for me."
In Chopra, Obama picked a CTO with a track record of understanding both the power of innovation, and the relationship between technology, education and economic success. That's not to say Chopra won't be tested: The federal bureaucracy surely will try his patience. And crucial questions about the reporting relationships and synchronization among the Obama's CIO, CTO and chief performance officer must be answered.
But for right now, Chopra looks like a strong choice as the country's first national chief technology officer.
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