Making Innovation Safe for Government (Again)

In his first book, former U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra sets out to do nothing less than recover and redeem government’s reputation for innovation.

by / July 23, 2014

With his first book, Innovative State, Aneesh Chopra adds historian to a resume that includes being named the nation’s first CTO, a turn as Virginia’s secretary of technology, candidate for the state’s lieutenant governor and most recently, co-founder of an analytics firm focused on using big data to solve societal problems.

The book is ambitious in scope and purpose. Chopra sets out to do nothing less than recover and redeem government’s reputation for innovation, which he writes became skewed in recent years by partisanship as politics turned toxic in Washington, D.C. An underlying tension between innovative problem solving and government’s use of technology goes back much further. 

There was a time when public- and private-sector bureaucracies were much alike — rows of clerks processing reams of paper. The consumer and citizen experience were largely the same, characterized by one-size-fits-all service and the expectation that it took a long time to get routine things done. The slow adoption of the typewriter by government — a technology private companies seized on early to speed service and grow their business — represented an early example of the commercial sector pulling away and resetting the public’s expectations of acceptable levels of service. Government has been playing catch up ever since and the gap between the public and private sectors has widened with each technological advance.

That the routine workings of government are subject to becoming captive of old, tired processes does not mean that those within it — working by themselves or in collaborations with industry and nonprofits — have not risen to the challenge in the face of monumental challenges. Chopra points to the 1890 census as a milestone in government problem solving. It was a high-stakes gambit because America’s rapidly expanding population had outstripped the manual capacity to count it. Enter Herman Hollerith, a statistician who developed a tabulating machine that modernized the Census Bureau and became an instrumental building block in what would become IBM. 

Hollerith is cited by many in the civic hacking movement as their inspiration, but Chopra argues for Ben Franklin as the founding father of prizes, challenges and competitions in solving big public problems collaboratively. In a precursor to the National Academy of Sciences, Franklin and a group of volunteer scientists and engineers hacked a navigation problem President Lincoln’s Navy was having with new ironclad ships. Chopra traces the line of collaborative innovation from Franklin and the NAS, DARPA and NASA to the XPRIZES, New Urban Mechanics, Code for America and modern hackathons.

The historical narrative helps to make innovation safe for government again. Many policymakers default to a less benign definition of hack than the one that animates the work of the helpful band of citizen coders who just want to make their communities better. Chopra calls on policymakers to seize this moment for both civic good and economic prosperity, citing a McKinsey Global Institute estimate that the successful exploitation of open data could add an annual $3 trillion to $5 trillion in economic activity — making it one of the highest stakes and disruptive moments of our time.

To those ends, Chopra suggests that reclaiming its innovative legacy requires government to learn three important lessons from the private sector: to draw on outsiders for new ideas and solutions to old problems; to draw on insiders for nuanced expertise on how things work; and to think seriously about the force multiplying potential of 3 million government employees augmented by a crowd of 300 million citizens to do the public’s business, together.

In Washington, a book is often read index first to see who is mentioned in it. In describing his time with the Obama administration, Chopra recounts and quotes many of the people with whom he worked and influenced how federal agencies addressed problems. That tendency, along with the cover-to-cover historical narrative, does come at a cost. The vast cast of characters tends to crowd out the author. Chopra has made a career of exploring and extolling the art of the possible with an infectious enthusiasm, a striking trait when talking with him or watching him speak. The book is a useful companion to that but not a substitute for it. ¨

Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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