Open Government

with Aneesh Chopra

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Agile Government

Making connections is what drives innovation

Aneesh Chopra

Assistant to the President and Chief Technology Officer, Author, Entrepreneur

Lessons Learned

By making information available, you can find and connect with the most passionate people.

You need discipline, agile framework, and appropriate scope to run a successful IT operation.


Lesson: Open Government with Aneesh Choprah

Step #4 Agile Government: Making connections is what drives innovation

I think there are three levels of communication. One, you have the president reinforce the importance of this on many occasions and we saw the president give speech after speech highlighting the power of openness and the opportunity to come together, so there's sort of a level set that says there's something here we should be thinking about.

Second, you clearly build platforms and distribution hubs so that people know where they can go and how easily it is for them to go and access and use that data for their own purpose. And those are table stakes. You've got the president giving you air cover, you've got technical capacity to foster the utilization of all this data, but the part that absolutely matters is to find the 50, 100, 1000 people in this country that care so deeply about the problem that you want them to go solve and you inject that passionate group with those equally passionate about how technology innovation can make a difference, and when you bring those groups together magic happens.

That was the birth of the Health Data Initiative, again my successor Todd Park, he organized a 50-person conclave. He had the world's leading thinkers in IT like Tim O'Reilly who coined the phrase Web 2.0 and generally is our godfather on these issues. And also coupled him up with Dr. Don Berwick, an equal legend on the health care side of the ledger if not on the tech side. And these two legends in their respective industries, Tim O'Reilly and Don Berwick, while giants in their own rights, had never met each other.

And by bringing them together at a forum hosted by the Institute of Medicine, Todd was planting the seeds and kindling the fire that one plus one could equal three. And that's how the information got out. The first Datapalooza was a couple hundred people in the auditorium and by the end of the third year, we had Jon Bon Jovi in front of a packed auditorium of thousands telling the story of how he had issued an open data challenge to help the homeless who seek food at one of his restaurants to better access publicly available services that were hard to access prior to his involvement in the challenge. That is the kind of spirit. You've got to bring the information to people and connect the most passionate with others in a similar space to make a difference.

What we've spent on average in the federal government is about $80 billion a year on IT and the vast majority of the applications and the big projects that we've had going back decades haven't realized their full potential. They've been over budget, over time, and failure to deliver the value that we had anticipated in the beginning of the project.

You need discipline to better manage and govern these projects. You need a new methodology that allows you to chunk up smaller and lighter weight pieces that you can build in a more agile framework so that people can get feedback as to what's being built and whether it’s achieving its objectives. You need to scope appropriately, so there's some best practices for how one should run their IT organization that may have not been as widely adopted across the various agencies.

So when I had the role as CTO, we were mostly focused on policy. What were the ideas that we should permeate and how do we create the conditions where more of this innovation could happen? Day-to-day operations of the use of IT in the $80 billion budget is the responsibility of the individual agencies. And while I totally appreciate that was transformative in a new idea, we weren't inventing a new form of physics. It was effectively an ecommerce site to get access to insurance plans that had been widely available as a capability in the private sector for a decade.

So it's frustrating, and it was frustrating for me to see this incredibly important policy for the country trip up for the lack of effective project management. And partly to blame in the procurement process, partly to blame in the inability of the agency and the contractors to get on the same page, partly to blame myths that somehow A and B couldn't get the things done that needed to get done. So bad choices and corners were cut.

I'll give you an example of how frustrating it was. The agency relied on a 2007 contract vehicle to pick the vendors that they chose to create the site. President Obama was elected in 2008, the bill wasn't even signed into law until 2010, so the question of who should build, I guess, in retrospect was asked in 2007. And that's not really what they were asked. They were asked do you have the technical ability to solve any need.

So a small, maybe dozen, two dozen companies had been pre-qualified to do technical work for the agency. They were the ones who were given the shot to build, not the wide aperture of people that have been in the business who understand how to build an ecommerce site around insurance products.

I'm not saying that all the excuse was tied to this, but that was a big chunk of the problem, that we didn't have processes that would allow us to access in a more nimble and agile way to realize the president's vision. Thankfully, they're fixing that issue.

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