US CTO Chopra on what’s next in tech: open government, spectrum policy, HIT, learning IT

“The single best thing we could do in open government is to get the American people engaged in the question of what high value data is,” said Aneesh Chopra, the first United States chief technology officer, speaking at this morning’s Politico “What’s Next in Tech” forum in Union Station. Video is below:

In an interview with Politico’s technology editor, Kim Hart, Chopra looked back at the lessons learned from his first two years on the job and ahead, appropriately, to what to expect in tech policy from the Obama administration. They covered a lot of ground, from open government successes to what’s next in Congress (hint: watch the push to open up spectrum for first responders) to supporting entrepreneurial growth.

Lessons learned

What were Chopra’s lessons learned? He offered up three examples.

First, with support from the President, Chopra said that they’ve been able to open up discussion and build trusted relationships across the federal government, which has been “critical” to improving the way technology could be used and the long term policy posture.

Second, with that support, he’s been surprised on seeing the pace of response become fast. There’s a “lesson on balance of getting long term balance, versus getting results in 90 days,” he said, referring to the turnaround on projects like HealthCare.gov.

Third, Chopra emphasized the role of “government as a convener,” where the administration can use its influence to bring people together to accomplish goals with technology without new regulations or legislation.

Working tech policy levers

What are the levers that the first US CTO has worked to try to galvanize action on the administration’s priorities?

First, a commitment to openness. From Manor, Texas, to inner cities, “people have found ways to tap into info in ways that helps them do something different,” said Chopra, speaking to the phenomenon of Gov 2.0 going local. “85 to 90% of that activity is happening in places we wouldn’t have imagined,” not gathering in Washington.

Second, Chopra cited the White House’s work towards “voluntary, consensus-driven standards,” noting that he was ” very proud of the work on NHIN Direct.”

Finally, Chopra noted that there’s some $150 billion spent on research and development every year, which offers a number of ways to push forward with innovation in priorities like healthcare IT, energy, smart grid or communications.

Making meaningful use modular

Given the new Congress coming in to Washington, Chopra’s description on the bipartisan agreement on tech policy from his time in Virginia under Republican leadership has to be more than a little strategic. He talked about “getting to the right answer,” referring back to an former manager, David Bradley, and his management strategy of “True North.”

That approach will be rested in the next Congress, on rulemaking. and in moving forward with the tech policy decisions. Outside of the healthcare bill that President Obama signed into law, which continues to meet with significant opposition in Congress, Chopra noted that “healthcare is signature part of President’s agenda,” specifically advanced by more than 20 billion dollars in Recovery Act spending on healthcare IT.

Chopra looked back at two decisions related to approaching technology policy a bit differently. “Rather than walking into Best Buy and buying software, we created more flexible standards for meaningful use,” he said. As a result, “entrepreneurs that never thought of themselves as EMR companies are entering the market.”

The decision to make meaningful use more modular was also significant, asserted Chopra. “We opened up the regulatory regime so you could certify each and every regulatory module.”

In aggregate, Chopra associated that R&D investment, work to convene conversations, open up data and create more flexible regulatory regimes with a better outcomes: venture capital investment in HIT going up by 39%, citing a statistic from the National Venture Capital Association.

Addressing the critics

Kim Hart brought up industry criticism of what the “first tech president” has delivered on, versus President Obama’s campaign promises. Halfway his term, the San Jose Mercury News reported this morning that on tech issues, Obama falls short of high expectations.

How did Chopra respond? He asked for more criticism, responding that you “must listen to people who are frustrated” and consider that much of the tech platform is in the space “where the plane is yet to land.” If you go through campaign promises, and look at executive ability to move the needle on different areas, Chopra asserted that the
biggest part of that – open government – has gone ahead. “It’s not ‘mom and apple pie perfect’,” he said, but they’re proud of delivering on 90 day deliverables like standards, or websites.

Part of the challenge of delivering on campaign promises is that budgetary or legislative action requires different stakeholders, observed Chopra, a reality that will become even more sharply defined in the next Congress. “The Recovery Act is a unique moment in time,” which, as he argued is “overwhelmingly the vehicle for campaign promises” in health IT and clean tech.

What’s next in United States technology policy?

First, it’s clear that Chopra and the Obama administration is thinking about online privacy, with the recently announced Internet privacy committee. There are open questions about how much portfolio, budget, subpoena power or other authority any new position would hold, but it’s an area to watch. Chopra said that he had met with Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and had found him supportive of privacy policy.

Chopra also met with Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is very supportive of increased government transparency through technology. Issa, a successful technology entrepreneur, is one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress when it comes to technology. Whatever comes out of his his legislative staff, or the new House Oversight committee, which he will chair, could represent a step forward for open government after the 2010 election.

Chopra also emphasized “modest but significant actions” that could improve the conditions for tech entrepreneurs in the United Stats, from open government data to regulatory action to smart grid or support for new learning technologies. On that count, Chopra offered up a “scoop” to Kim Hart, observing that the next area where he will focus on driving innovation will be into learning technologies, with more news coming at a Brookings Institute event in December.

The top opportunities that Chopra sees for entrepreneurs are in healthcare and energy, the former of which is already becoming hot with more healthcare apps provisioned with open healthcare data

“One policy lever is the role of public-private partnerships,” observed Chopra, highlighting the growth in STEM education, with over half a billion dollars in investment. “It’s not the money, it’s the platforms,” he said.

Chopra fielded a question Congressman Wu (D-OR), the current chairman of the House technology and innovation committee. After a discursion into what went wrong for the Democratic Party in the midterm, Wu asked what the next priority will be for Congress and Chopra to work together upon. His answer was simple: spectrum policy, emphasizing voluntary processes for formulating solution. The priority, he said, was to get a broadband network for public safety that’s interoperable for first responders.

Finally, Chopra talked about the story of the Alfred brothers, who founded Brightscope in California in 2008. The story of Brightscope is important: data driving the innovation economy. They knew about key data on 401(k) plan fees at the Department of Labor, worked hard to liberate it and now have a successful, growing startup as a result.

Look for video of the event on Politico’s multimedia section later today to tomorrow. For more on Chopra, open government and participatory platforms, read Radar or watch the interview below.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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