It’s been a busy last few weeks for Aneesh Chopra. On Dec. 4, Chopra announced the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive. The news was enough to land Chopra a mention on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show . On the heels of all the buzz, ExecutiveBiz recently caught up with Chopra. We brought our list of questions that matter most to government contractors: among them, what potential opportunities do contractors have to contribute to the Open Government Directive. Here’s what Chopra’s saying about this and other pressing matters “” like what it’s like to get a little ribbing from Jon Stewart.
ExecutiveBiz: Tell us about your role as Federal CTO. What relevance does it hold in today's marketplace?
Aneesh Chopra: I wake up every morning more excited than the day before because there's a great deal of opportunity to deliver on the change our President has called for. The Chief Technology Officer role has two components: the first is my service as Assistant to the President; the second is in my capacity as Associate Director for Technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In my role as Assistant to the President, I serve as one of 25 key advisors who meet every morning in the West Wing to coordinate and collaborate on all the major issues in front of the President. My responsibility is largely to ensure that the voice of technology and innovation is heard across a wide range of policy priorities ““healthcare, energy, or education. At OSTP, a role for which the United States Senate confirmed me back in May, I coordinate agency technology R&D and policy and interface with the private sector in advancing our policy priorities.
ExecutiveBiz: On Friday, December 4th you launched the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology. What's that about?
Aneesh Chopra: This is a legal body associated with my role in OSTP that's responsible for coordinating federal technology R&D and policy across the agencies. We have senior agency representation, including Assistant Secretaries and agency heads focused on technology and innovation. I've asked [Federal CIO] Vivek Kundra to sit as my co-chair so we have a unified voice on the role of technology in this Administration.
ExecutiveBiz: What's the feedback been like for the committee?
Aneesh Chopra: Overwhelming. We are focused on three new initiatives to start our work in 2010 ““ supporting the President's Open Government initiative, prioritizing implementation of the National Broadband Plan which will be issued by the FCC in February, and elevating the role of open data standards and architecture as a policy tool to spur innovation. In addition, we support planning activities for technology R&D investments like the Networking and Information Technology R&D plan, an Aerospace R&D plan, and so forth. Vivek will lead efforts to address cloud computing opportunities as part of his work overseeing the $76 billion in federal agency IT spending.
ExecutiveBiz: The Open Government Directive just came out. What potential opportunities do government contractors have to contribute to his directive?
Aneesh Chopra: The Open Government Directive is a tremendous opportunity for those in the technology sector who wish to serve government better. First, there is a lot of opportunity to support agencies wishing to deliver open government. In that regard I hope there will be a thriving industry of folks who basically professionalize the web2.0 space as it relates to agency adoption.
ExecutiveBiz: How can new tools allow for the next generation of public engagement?
Aneesh Chopra: The US Patent and Trademark Office serves as a great example. They issued an RFI in the fall asking for the technology industry to design a plan that would make terabytes of patent information freely available to the American people. A number of firms have responded to that RFI. I'm confident that by early 2010 we will have a program to release patent and trademark data built out of a partnership coming [from the] RFI process, and respectful of security and privacy considerations.
ExecutiveBiz: What tools have come together on the collaboration side?
Aneesh Chopra: There are a number worth celebrating. For example, the work we've done at the Centers for Disease Control on H1N1 surveillance “¦ building on the traditional bio-surveillance program run out of the CDC, we turned to a demonstration project called “Distribute“ that takes more advantage of web 2.0 technologies to rapidly enroll more than 1,500 emergency departments in the reporting of patients with flu-like illness. In addition to promoting data sharing at the public health level, most participating communities have agreed to report publicly on these statistics available at www.isdsdistribute.org.
ExecutiveBiz: What's changed about the government's approach to technology?
Aneesh Chopra: Before we embark on a multi-billion dollar contract to modernize some legacy technology, we're starting to ask ourselves: How will this impact the American people? How are we designing this next new system in a way that isn't just a modernized version of the current technology? How is this program itself changing the way we interact with the American people? Look at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service as an example – they are on a multi-year billion dollar plus program to transform the legacy environment for the immigration experience. Thanks to a more customer-facing web portal, they're learning a great deal about applicant needs, which are, in turn, helping to shape their thinking on the overall modernization plan. I think you're going to see that happen more often than not across agencies.
ExecutiveBiz: What advice would you give a small company looking to propose an innovative idea to the federal government?
Aneesh Chopra: Well, we are trying to expand more of the procurement opportunities for small businesses. If you think about defensesolutions.gov, it's essentially a frictionless way to bring a new idea to solve a particular problem capped at a $300,000 contract value. A small business that feels they can address a defense need as described on defensesolutions.gov should have a very easy way of presenting their idea and then iterating with the agency on whether they can produce that idea through the procurement process without the kind of overhead one usually associates with it.
ExecutiveBiz: You're also in the midst of going through the Small Business Innovation Research [SBIR] reauthorization. Tell us about that.
Aneesh Chopra: [Pending] House and the Senate agreement, we think a modernized version of the SBIR program will more tightly integrate the work that's been done there to meet the operational needs of the agency and could spur economic growth. I also think innovative companies who embrace the President's open government philosophy might be strong teaming partners with our traditional players around the Beltway. Historically, technology firms have been adept at bringing in emerging technologies and building a systems approach to the tools to address the needs of the agencies. I see that happening as well in this open government philosophy. Small businesses, as they always have, will find value teaming on some of the bigger opportunities.
ExecutiveBiz: How, if at all, has your position changed you?
Aneesh Chopra: How has it affected or changed me? I'm learning a great deal how to listen to all key stakeholders and voices not just here in Washington but, as the President says, taking the conversation outside Washington. That is a skill that I am trying to build more of over time ““the ability to understand all shared needs.
ExecutiveBiz: Is there any one mentor you'd credit with your professional success?
Aneesh Chopra: David Bradley, who founded the Advisory Board. In 1999, the dotcom boom hit northern Virginia, and David wondered how we might capture new capabilities born of the Internet and incorporate them into our traditional research business. I invited David to a networking event in northern Virginia so he could listen directly to those innovating in this space. He [soon] met some of the emerging leaders of technology in northern Virginia. I was relatively a junior staff member at the time; I was writing research studies focusing on hospital operational performance. Within days, however, he asked me to split my time writing research studies and serving as his Director of Advisory Board Ventures. That experience helped accelerate my career and enabled a smooth transition from the private to the public sector, as Virginia Governor [Tim] Kaine's Secretary of Technology.
ExecutiveBiz: What advice would you give someone who would want a job like yours 10 or 20 years from now?
Aneesh Chopra: I would emphasize a mindset that understands the role of technology in advancing a larger set of policy priorities, not for its own sake. We find in public policy the needs are defined by the Administration's policy and priorities. If one could build up the capacity to understand how technology can modernize the national healthcare system, education system, public safety network, or our national security “¦ those capabilities are critical to being an effective leader in advocating for technology at the senior most levels. That translation is the key for success in the public sector.
ExecutiveBiz: What was your reaction to the appointment of Howard Schmidt as cyber-security coordinator?
Aneesh Chopra: I am delighted as Howard best represents the President’s perspective to consider cybersecurity as a potential driver of the nation’s economy. With over 40 years of experience in the public and private sectors, I’m confident he will deliver on the cyber-security review ably led by our friend, Melissa Hathaway. On a personal level, I’ve known Howard since early in my tenure when we met to discuss strategies to engage in public-private partnerships. Since that time, we’ve had a number of occassions to meet, including with my colleague, Vivek Kundra. We look forward to working as a team on this important international priority.
ExecutiveBiz: Last week you were mentioned on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. What was your first response?
Aneesh Chopra: To Jon Stewart I say, simply: I appreciate the humor but I couldn't quite figure out the Kevin Smith, Mike Dee, and George Clooney bit. [Seriously], we had the privilege of announcing the President's Open Government Directive, which we'd been working on since my very first day on the job. I was excited about the whole portfolio of activities and got caught up in the moment. Jon Stewart caught that moment. It was humbling, but, frankly, on the positive side, it brought attention to the Open Government Directive. More people are asking questions about how it can be advanced. So, at the end of the day, if a few laughs at my expense help advance the President's policy objectives on open government, I'll take that trade any day of the week.