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What Obama Did for Tech: New Tech Roles

Of all of Obama’s tech strategies and programs, the White House roles of CIO, chief technology officer and chief data officer are the most susceptible to change.

Editor's note: This story is part of a six-part series on how Obama has, over the last eight years, elevated the profile of IT in the public sector. He taught government how to ride the technology bicycle, so to speak. A future president who neglects technology won’t be able to make it forget the skills taught through the influence of Silicon Valley and startup culture, said Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer.

In March 2009, when President Obama appointed Vivek Kundra as the first federal CIO, it was an unprecedented move. The position had authority to oversee technology investments, spending and opportunities for innovation across the federal government. The news left people wondering what such a position could mean for government. Yet before there was a chance to finalize first thoughts, the president released more news.

In short succession he called on Virginia’s secretary of technology, Aneesh Chopra, to be the nation’s first CTO, and former eBay and Microsoft security expert Howard Schmidt to be the first cybersecurity coordinator. Later, he called on ex-Googler Mikey Dickerson to be the administrator of the U.S. Digital Service, a group that — along with 18F, its sister service at the General Services Administration — has let loose a wave of new IT, design and policy positions set on rethinking service delivery.

The people filling White House positions have included D.J. Patil, a former LinkedIn data specialist, now serving as the country’s first chief data scientist; former Twitter V.P. Jason Goldman, now improving communications as chief digital officer, and Code for America Founder Jennifer Pahlka, who served as deputy CTO from 2013 to 2014. It’s also hard not to mention Todd Park, co-founder of the $5.2 billion health IT company AthenaHealth. In his time serving as U.S. CTO (after Chopra), Park founded the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, calling in private-sector talent for yearlong fellowships that tackled pressing government problems.

Of all of Obama’s tech strategies and programs, these White House roles are the most susceptible to change. A new administration may continue Obama’s organizational structure or dismiss it. Typically, a rebranding takes place and people and positions come and go. Yet, if there’s one aspect of the new roles that endure, it may be their core ingredients. The common character traits to these hires is a mix of private-sector expertise, presidential authority and job descriptions that embrace modern problem-solving.

A new president, whatever his or her political leaning, may apply the same strategy under a set of new titles, for the results have shown promise. They include the development of, the national open data portal launched in 2009 with now more than 180,000 public data sets, and the Precision Medicine Initiative, an endeavor spearheaded by Patil and the National Institutes of Health to find genome-based cures for diseases like cancer. In addition, there are several U.S. Digital Service projects that have vastly improved agency operations handling veteran benefits, the immigration process and college education applications, to name a few.