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Obama Names Aneesh Chopra US's First CTO [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, April 17 2009

Looks like instead of mocking Nancy Scola, we owe her kudos for predicting all the way back in November that Obama's pick for the nation's first Chief Technology Officer would be "someone out of the small but vibrant government CTO world, like Virginia's able Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra." Well, Nancy gets the cake, as word has leaked that indeed Chopra is stepping into the post. Here's what President Obama says about the decision in his Saturday radio address:

Aneesh Chopra, who is currently the Secretary of Technology for Governor Kaine of Virginia, has agreed to serve as America’s Chief Technology Officer. In this role, Aneesh will promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities – from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure.

Aneesh [...] will work closely with our Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra, who is responsible for setting technology policy across the government, and using technology to improve security, ensure transparency, and lower costs. The goal is to give all Americans a voice in their government and ensure that they know exactly how we’re spending their money – and can hold us accountable for the results.

A few quick observations about this choice. First, it looks like very good news for the transparency movement, as well as those of us looking for an open-minded leader willing to experiment with new forms of collaborative governance. For example, back in early 2007, under Chopra's leadership, Virginia was one of the first states to move, with Google's help, to make its state websites more searchable and thus more accessible to ordinary citizens. The state has also been in the forefront of efforts to create robust web services tracking the giant government stimulus spending package enacted by Obama, and as fed-watcher Christopher Dorobek points out, Chopra is well aware of and supportive of citizen-led watchdog efforts like Jerry Brito's StimulusWatch.org. (Give points to Dorobek for also noting Chopra's potential as CTO.)

Under Chopra (and it must be mentioned, his boss Governor Tim Kaine), the state also launched a highly interactive website that collected more than 9000 suggestions from residents on how the stimulus monies might be spent. "Relative to calls and letters, it's fairly safe to say this is probably a tenfold increase in civic participation by allowing people to click on a button, submit their ideas and engage with their governor," Chopra told a local paper back in March.

Finally, like his soon-to-again-be-colleague Vivek Kundra, Obama's Chief Information Officer, who also came out of Virginia before serving as DC's CTO, Chopra is willing to try new ways to innovate government processes, inspired by the open and lateral networking development culture of the internet. Governing Magazine calls him a "Venture Governmentalist," specifically citing "a small but intriguing experiment in Virginia that aims to bring the high-risk, high-reward ethic of venture investing to state government." Last year, Chopra invested $2 million in about a dozen small internal agency tech projects with potential to pay big returns in terms of productivity. "More important, and more unusual for the bureaucrats," says Governing, "he gives them permission to fail. You can't innovate, Chopra tells them, without taking a gamble every now and then." He adds, "We need to fundamentally change the culture of government in which change is measured in budget cycles to one in which change is measured in weeks or months." Who can argue with that?

UPDATED: Go read Tim O'Reilly's detailed take on Chopra's chops (ha, had to do that). His conclusion: "Aneesh Chopra is a rock star. He's a brilliant, thoughtful change-maker. He knows technology, he knows government, and he knows how to put the two together to solve real problems. We couldn't do better."

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