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New White House Deputy CTO Vein To Open-Goverment Advocates: 'Cause Trouble'

BY Nick Judd | Monday, March 7 2011

White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation Chris Vein, left, with Union Square Ventures Partner Brad Burnham at TransportationCamp East on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy TransportationCamp / Flickr

On Saturday, in what was probably his first public appearance as White House deputy chief technology officer for government innovation, Chris Vein outlined goals he will seek to meet in the position he inherited from now-New York Law School professor Beth Noveck.

While he offered little detail on his White House plans, saying that he had not yet devised a strategy, he did speak in the abstract about what he hoped to do. And he delivered extensive and candid remarks about the dominant role that political pragmatism — rather than technologically forward thinking — must play in any efforts to update the work of government.

"What I hope to do in the White House is three things: One is I hope to convene experts or just people with ideas about innovative ways to renew government," Vein said during a lunchtime address on Saturday at TransportationCamp East, a two-day unconference on transportation, policy and technology hosted by New York Law School and OpenPlans.

He continued:

The second thing [is], I hope to consult with, work with, whatever words you want to use, to make sure that we can actually build what we think we can do. And lastly, and I think this may be actually most important, is showcase the success that each of you have at the federal, state, and local levels, because I think the bully pulpit is probably the biggest asset of my job ... simply to trumpet your success, give you guys credit for it and tell everybody what we're really doing.

Vein joined the White House in February after several years as the chief information officer for the city and county of San Francisco. He presided over the implementation of several groundbreaking developments, including a local open government directive, the DataSF open data portal, and the adoption of the Open311 standard for non-emergency services. While he joined the White House after Noveck left, his title is different: He is deputy CTO for government innovation, presumably a larger portfolio, while Noveck's title specifically referenced open government.

He declined to offer additional comments on what he is doing or will do in the White House, saying that he had not yet devised a strategy for his new federal job and had only been there a matter of weeks. But in comments about his time in San Francisco, Vein seemed to describe bureaucracy — not technology — as the chief obstacle he worked to overcome.

"We are, like most governments, incredibly hard to do business with internally and externally," Vein said of San Francisco, describing a vast bureaucracy made up of union contracts, a civil service system, and thousands of employees.

Compare that with San Francisco's population — and especially the Silicon Valley culture of entrepreneurship — and there's a "mismatch" between the the population's expectations and what Vein had to manage and deliver, he said. He expanded on that idea in a question-and-answer session held later on in a classroom at New York Law School, in which he described organizational resistance, not technological limitation, as the central challenge for a leader trying to update his organization for the 21st century.

"You have to think carefully and long about the power structure you're messing with," Vein said during the question-and-answer session.

"Technology is not the problem," he said later on, during a conversation about consolidating government data centers. "It's the people, it's the power structure, it's the money flow that creates that problem."

For outsiders hoping to advocate for greater government openness and participation, he offered this advice: "Cause trouble.

"Let's face it," he said. "Governments react, generally speaking, again, this is my experience in my old job, to sticky wheels, [to] people who make noise."

Vein also described the importance of giving government workers the freedom to innovate, overcoming a colossal fear of failure that permeates government culture — a point that has also been raised by his former colleague from Washington, D.C., Bryan Sivak, who is also no longer with city government — and of connecting innovators inside government to other innovators, both inside and outside their bureaucracy.

Vein, a longtime member of government, has been called a hands-on executive brought onboard in Washington to build upon the work of his predecessor, Noveck, a lawyer and academic. If his remarks in New York over the weekend are any indication, he is at the least a keen analyst of the kind of realpolitik that can sometimes drive state and local policy decisions, and views finding ways to overcome political resistance to change as a large part of his past work.