Chopra defends tech policy impact on federal workers

Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra got a mostly warm send-off at a think- tank event during his last day on the job, but the conversation turned a bit heated when he was called upon to defend how his innovation policies have impacted federal employees.

Chopra, along with three other high-profile technology policy executives in the administration, spoke at a Feb. 8 panel discussion on innovation in government. The panel, at the Center for American Progress, also included Todd Park, CTO at the Health and Human Services Department; Peter Levin, CTO at Veterans Affairs; and Chris Vein, federal deputy CTO.

Chopra spoke enthusiastically of the administration's efforts to release large quantities of federal data to private-sector developers for the purpose of developing distribution systems and applications, ultimately generating startups and new jobs, and of holding contests and challenges to get innovative new thinkers involved in solving federal agency needs.

For example, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency was able to develop a prototype combat support vehicle within a remarkably short time by sponsoring a design contest open to the public. Thousands of designers and engineers responded.

“These are unknown, talented Americans stepping up,” Chopra said.

In another example, Chopra cited the White House’s “We the People” public petition initiative, which he said recently drew in more than 100,000 signatures for a petition related to developing a federal policy on Internet speech and online copyright protection. The White House has also crowdsourced language in an upcoming homeowner's bill of rights policy document, he said.

“If we tap into the collective expertise of the American people we can overcome some of these challenges,” Chopra said.

The spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation should extend within government as well, to federal employees who think like “entrepreneurs in residence” rather than thinking like “careerists” with a “lifetime of service,” Chopra said.

Chopra also announced the White House’s Open Innovators Toolkit, which is a series of 20 best practices, along with case studies, that aims to help policy-makers and citizens become innovators who can contribute solutions to solving the nation’s most vexing problems.

However, an audience member who identified himself as an employee at the Housing and Urban Development Department, suggested that the impact of the administration’s innovation policies has not been beneficial for federal workers.

“At HUD we got rid of our programmers and outsourced our IT services,” the audience member said.

Chopra, along with the other CTOs on the panel, strongly denied that the innovation policies have been harmful to federal employees. Chopra said the administration’s goal "is the opposite" of what the HUD speaker implied, and the intention is to "empower" federal workers and "overcome the barriers" that can hinder worker innovation.

At HHS, Park said it was federal employees who “rank with the best” who got the Healthcare.gov website up and running within 90 days, a feat that has impressed private-industry colleagues. He said the innovation initiatives at HHS all have sought to “free the mojo” of the federal employees at the department and get them thinking like innovators.

Levin said the VA has sponsored several innovation initiatives to tap into the ideas generated by its workers. In one of those initiatives, they sought ideas for speeding up claims processing from the department’s 20,000 employees who work in that area.

Traditionally, VA had done a poor job of engaging with its employees, Levin acknowledged. But the recent innovation initiatives have been successful at generating multiple small changes that have made a big difference in speeding up claims processing.

“The end result was 15 projects, which are all in various stages of development,” Levin said. “We have seen hundreds of days of processing time turn into tens of days, and tens of days turn into minutes.”

Chopra, at the end of the program, received a fond farewell from Park, who is among the names being mentioned as a possible successor. Levin and Vein also are talked about as possibly succeeding Chopra as federal CTO.

“We are going to miss you, big guy,” Park said to Chopra. “You can see with this toolkit you released today, you have gone viral.”

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Reader comments

Fri, Feb 10, 2012 OccupyIT

Mr. Chopra is one of the smartest people alive. As a result you do catch the same President of Contempt undercurrent his boss exudes. That said, when in charge of a room of kindergarden children you have to be the adult and get them to do what you want. Mr. Chopra has done this and to some extent it is sad, and perhaps jade-inducing, to recognize he is right and this is what it takes - threats and stage tricks. Thank you, Mr. Chopra, for your hard work and your undeniable results. I count them as more real than the often celebrated but ephemeral Mr. Kundra. Good luck to you in the future and we all look forward to your continued contributions to public service.

Thu, Feb 9, 2012

The Open Innovator's Toolkit is now available in open, standard, machine-readable StratML format at http://xml.gov/stratml/drybridge/index.htm#OIT

Thu, Feb 9, 2012 Glenn Schlarman Annandale, VA

I'm a retired fed and can look at the issues in this column several ways. First, as for innovation potentially hurting federal employees, I recall the old saying, "if horses could vote, we wouldn't have cars." So, some innovation will hurt some employees, but overall it will be a net positive for all. Second, I wonder if Chopra would be willing dismissive about unions, e.g., rather than being "union preservationists, they should think about being performance and productivity improvers in place." Hah! That would certainly have been his last day in the Administration regardless of any plans to leave." Third, elevate his comments to the larger economy, and he sounds like a capitalist -- good for him!

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