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White House CTO Aneesh Chopra's Exit Interview

BY Nick Judd | Monday, February 6 2012

On his way out of the White House and back to Virginia, where he is expected to run for public office — but will neither confirm or deny that's the plan — Aneesh Chopra describes the shape of the post he pioneered as the country's first-ever chief technology officer.

As a result of Chopra's interview with The Atlantic's tech/politics correspondent, Nancy Scola, there's now a public record of what this first-ever CTO thinks the CTO's job actually is ("On any topic that is a priority for the president, my role is evaluate how technology, data, and innovation can advance, support, and improve upon those strategies," among other things) and how it might be improved.

Scola, who has also served as the associate editor here at techPresident, also draws Chopra out on what exactly it meant to have the White House, as a response to a petition on the White House's brand-new "We the People" e-petitioning tool, issue a statement on the Stop Online Piracy Act at a key point in its legislative life.

Here's that exchange:

SOPA/PIPA is exactly what We the People was meant to do. Traditionally, Congress formally requests a Statement of Administration Policy, called a "SAP." Requests for SAPs come in all the time from Congress. We respond based on the dynamics of Washington, priorities and timelines. One would argue that a Washington-centric approach would have have been to await the request for a SAP and publish it, oftentimes when a major vote is happening. If you contrast that were SOPA/PIPA was, still in committee or just getting out of committee, and not yet on the floor, traditionally a White House would not issue a SAP that early. So the train we were on, the routine Washington line of business, we would have awaited the right time to issue a SAP, and done it at congressional request. It just wasn't time yet. The We the People process flipped upside-down to whom we are responsible for providing input.

In gathering over a hundred thousand signatures, on SOPA/PIPA, the American people effectively demanded a SAP.

When I asked Jim Gilliam, the co-founder of NationBuilder, former Brave New Films organizer and all-around Internet-powered-people-power enthusiast, about We the People, he described it to me as a way for President Barack Obama to use "the will of the American people as a cudgel in the fight against Congress."

But it should be said that this particular part of Obama's technology-in-governance legacy, something with which Chopra will forever be inextricably linked, has garnered bipartisan applause.

Matt Lira is on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's digital staff. He's been watching the We the People experiment unfold since the platform was rolled out late last year.

"It seems that it has the potential to be a permanent fixture of any White House now and into the future," Lira told me by email in December. While he said that it's standard for anyone trying to use technology in government to admit that the execution needs improvement — because it always does — the We the People platform is something likely to live on in the next White House, regardless of the next president's party.

"The internal battles they are having today will lay the foundation for more advanced uses of petitions in the future - hopefully for both this and future Administrations," he wrote to me in an email.

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