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With Chopra Gone, Is Open Government in Jeopardy?

Experts weigh-in on the impact former Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra’s departure will have on government open data issues and discuss the future.

With U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra’s resignation last week and the departure of former U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra last year, the federal brain trust behind the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive has officially left the building. Is the movement they championed far behind?

At least one expert believes the writing is on the wall for open government, unless new ways can be found to use big data more effectively within the federal government’s operational structure.

Andrea Di Maio, vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner Research, wrote in a blog post Monday, Jan. 30, that the movement needs to show what it can offer and “create a clear connection with problems that jurisdiction[s] and agencies need to solve,” particularly with many agencies still facing budgetary problems.

In an email to Government Technology, Di Maio said it’s important to apply open data to internal issues, such as making government services and operations cheaper. An example Di Maio mentioned is that government should award employees who come up with innovative and cost-saving methods of leveraging data, rather than just targeting developers to make citizen-facing applications.

“It’s not an either-or, but open government cannot prove its value only by providing greater transparency and engaging citizens,” Di Maio said. “Data is a platform that government itself should use.”

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, Calif., and a former private-sector IT professional, agreed that government should use the data as best as it can to get more efficient. But he wasn’t sold on the opinion that the departures of Chopra and Kundra might spell the end of open government. Reichental argued that the movement is a global phenomenon and much bigger than Chopra and Kundra.

Reichental said the release of almost 400,000 federal data sets and the hundreds of apps during Chopra’s tenure is impressive and is a reflection of next-generation government — and that it’s not business as usual in Washington, D.C., or around the world.

But unlike Di Maio, Reichental felt the application of data shouldn’t be a primary objective of those responsible for providing it.

“If you are in charge of making data available, your job is to make the data ‘machine consumable’ and … not to worry too much about the consumers,” Reichental said. “If the data is indeed usable and you are getting a volume out there available in a way people can get to, the right people will get it.”

Who’s Next?

So who will replace Chopra, who rumor has it is entertaining a run for lieutenant governor in Virginia?

The Obama administration isn’t saying, but Di Maio felt the federal CTO’s role could be defined better. So far, the U.S. CTO position is a bit of an enigma, he said. Chopra was focused on technology issues that impact both government and the technology.

Di Maio said he struggled to understand Chopra’s priorities and believes that the person who fills the former CTO’s shoes would be better served by a clearer, more focused mandate. The key to success for Chopra’s successor, Di Maio said, will be an ability to focus on how to use technology to solve actual problems.

“In this respect, I believe that Aneesh (and now Beth [Noveck, Chopra’s deputy who left prior to Kundra’s departure in 2011]) failed to look at the benefits of using open government inside government rather than for just for the benefits of the American people,” Di Maio said.

Chopra and Kundra both had significant public-sector experience before coming to work for the Obama administration in 2009. At that time, many state CIOs thought that knowledge of other government levels would prove helpful for advancing the communication between the feds and state/local agencies.

Kundra was replaced, however, by Steven VanRoekel, who became federal CIO after a career mostly in federal government and the private sector. So if Chopra’s successor follows the same trend, might it hurt the federal-state-local relationships that Kundra and Chopra worked to build?
Being fairly new to the public sector, Reichental wasn’t sure if the communication between governmental levels would suffer. But he’s a believer in what a private-sector candidate could do in the position, saying that objectives are often driven by market forces, which create a pace and aggressiveness familiar to an executive who has worked in private industry.

“You’ve got to have someone who is a deep technologist who knows how to get things done,” Reichental said.