What makes a great song great?
To the federal employee who carries two Blackberries and still works on Windows 7.0, the government may not seem like a hotbed of tech innovation. But the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer says there’s hope. Aneesh Chopra maps out a strategy to harness big data, speed up decision-making and use private sector technology partnerships to boost government efficiency.
- Aneesh Chopra Former United States Chief Technology Officer; Co-founder, Hunch Analytics; Author, "Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government" (Grove/Atlantic, 2014)
Watch A Featured Clip
Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra discussed what might have gone wrong with the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, which is being blamed for the deaths of 40 Arizona veterans who were waiting for appointments.
For the full discussion, watch the video below
Watch Full Video
Watch the full video of our show with Aneesh Chopra.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's "Tech Tuesday." The federal employee who carries two Blackberries and works on Windows 7.0, the federal government, to that employee, may not seem like a hot bed of cutting edge technology. But the nation's First Chief Technology Officer says there's hope. Aneesh Chopra points to a long history of government developing and embracing new technology, starting with the postal service and its move from the pony express to the railroad to the fledgling airline industry to deliver the mail.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDrawing on that history of innovation and some key lessons from the private sector, he says the government can return to its glory days at the forefront of technology, creation and adoption. But, as we watch the rollout of the still shaky healthcare.gov website, and hear about long waiting lists for veterans to see doctors, it's clear there's still room for progress in harnessing technology to make government work better. Aneesh Chopra joins us in studio. He is former Chief Technology Officer for the United States, co-founder of Hunch Analytics and author of "Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government." Aneesh Chopra, welcome. Good to see you.
MR. ANEESH CHOPRAThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation on this "Tech Tuesday," by calling 800-433-8850. Do you work in the federal government? How could technology make your job easier or more productive? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, using the hashtag techtuesday. Or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Aneesh Chopra, you point out that for a long time, the federal government actually led the way in technology innovation, from a census worker who invented a tabulating machine that prompted the birth of IBM to federal seed money for the first telegraph. But then, the private sector pulled ahead in developing technology. What happened?
CHOPRAWell, I think we've seen, really, two decades of divergence. And, you know, when we look at the last, sort of, bipartisan push for fixing government, you know, it was 1993. And then President Bill Clinton and Al Gore, when they launched the re-inventing government initiative, at that time, Kojo, there were only about 200 websites on the internet. So, the success of that initiative largely pre-dated all of the current technologies that have really permeated our private sector. Big data, mobile broadband.
CHOPRAAnd some of the interesting techniques around cloud computing to make computing power as accessible as your local utility is for power. So, it's really been an adoption challenge. We haven't really caught pace, kept up, if you will, with the adoption of these technologies. And frankly, it's the use of these technologies to open up the government, to tap in to the country's wide ranging talents that is at the centerpiece of why I’m so hopeful for the next decade.
NNAMDIIndeed. Everything you talked about has happened, essentially, in the last 20 years.
NNAMDIWe have thousands of federal workers here in this region, and I bet a lot of them wouldn't give their employer high marks for cutting edge technology, especially those with government issue phone and computers that are several generation behind what they have at home. What are the challenges in keeping the technology up-to-date?
CHOPRAWell, I would say both challenges and opportunities, Kojo. So, my colleague at the White House, in the first Obama administration, had (unintelligible) launched a cloud first policy. He's been a guest on your show, and that really moved the default setting of government towards the adoption of newer technologies as the default. Now, agencies are implementing this in fits and starts, and we're on that inexorable journey towards the modernization of the employees' tools.
CHOPRABut at the same time, Kojo, we've put in place already a set of capabilities that can be turned on, even if your systems, as an employee, are limited, by opening up your data and inviting others to join in. I'll give you one small example, Kojo. My wife and I have two beautiful girls. And one of my frustrations, as a parent, was the difficulty of installing the infant car seat. It turns out half of America does this poorly.
CHOPRAAnd it's actually a safety problem. Well, a Department of Transportation employee, at a transportation data jam, or boot camp, or however you want to call these technology gatherings, made comment that we have a database in transportation of all the locations in America that can install or verify that your seat's well done. Someone in that room, that weekend, Kojo, built a mobile app so that a parent could look up the nearest available station where they can check if their infant car seats have been installed.
CHOPRASo, did that federal worker have to wait for a cloud first policy to get them better tools to launch the service? Or do they simply open up the data, inform the public that it's available, and tap into the entrepreneurial mojo that is our country to see ideas come to life, that improve peoples' lives.
NNAMDISo, the car seat installation challenged, which is apparently more than 50 percent of the population, immediately have someplace that they can go and find out if they've done it properly.
CHOPRAYeah. And the point is that it's because we have such talent and capacity in this country, Kojo. We're a nation of three million federal workers, many of whom live in the greater Washington area. But we're a nation of 300 million people, and if we could force multiply the work force, not on the government's balance sheet or income or payroll, but through this collaboration model, using these newer technologies, there's no limit to what we can't do to solve the big challenges of our day.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Aneesh Chopra, former Chief Technology Officer for the United States. Now, co-founder of Hunch Analytics. He's the author of the book, "Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government." Does your federal government office encourage risk taking? Make it safe to try something new and fail? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there with a question or comment.
NNAMDILet's compare the problem solving speed in government and industry. There's a perception today, fair or unfair, that the bureaucracy bogs down the government's ability to move quickly, to define and solve problems. What can the government learn from the tech sector about setting realistic goals and empowering workers? What are the lessons from people like Sam Pitroda and Jeff Bezos?
CHOPRAWell, I would say, at the outset, let me first level set and give some context, then I'll give you some suggestions on what we've done. The first point is, let's learn from what worked in the public sector and the private sector in years past, by also looking at where we've seen failure. I write prominently of the story of Kodak, Kojo. Kodak, in the 70s and 80s, was a do no wrong company, right? The absolute pinnacle of American innovation and they seemingly were an unstoppable force as they progressed into any sector of the economy they chose to get into.
CHOPRAYet, here we were, 2012, the same year that First Lady Michelle Obama invites the co-founder of Instagram to sit in her box during the State of the Union, on the eve of their billion dollar acquisition by Facebook, we have Kodak declaring bankruptcy. And what happened? Well, my former colleagues at the advisory board company, back in the mid-90s, studies this problem, and they said Kodak suffered a typical management stall. And one of the failures is the inability to innovate. They invented, if you will, the idea of a VCR, but they, management wise, said nobody's gonna pay 500 bucks for the machine, so they didn't invest in commercializing it.
CHOPRAThey invented digital photography, but did not choose to invest in commercializing it as a fear it would cannibalize their core business. So, the lesson I took from Kodak, Kojo, is that organizations have the capacity to better manage what's called the innovation pipeline. Bringing new ideas from conception to prototype. From prototype to broader market adoption, and then to national scale. So, what is it that we learned in the case studies on how agencies can adopt this concept of an innovation pipeline management structure?
CHOPRAWell, it turns out that there are some very simple principles. One, culture. We learned from Procter and Gamble that if the CEO, like President Obama has done, commits to saying we're gonna tap into the expertise, externally, not just internally. We're going to bring new ideas to life. Second, we learned from Jeff Bezos at Amazon, that we have brilliant and well equipped resources on the front lines of our agencies. The three million federal workers, let's empower them with the authority and the ability to try new ideas.
CHOPRAAnd last, but certainly not least, we learned from Facebook, the idea force multiplying, by opening up the Facebook developer platform, there are over 30,000 developers, who are doing work, even though only a couple thousand of them work on the Facebook's payroll. We can adopt all of these principles. I call this open innovation, and it's what we worked on, at least in the first term, and my successor has carried on, in big numbers, here in the second term.
NNAMDIIn some cases, the government has used technology to sidestep politics and the chief change, without first getting bipartisan consensus How does the Race to the Rooftop Program, to cut the cost of installing solar panels on homes, exemplify that approach?
CHOPRASo, this is a phenomenal story, Kojo. I can't tell you how much of my social life is around the frustrations people have about climate change. In my community, my circle of friends, it's sort of an obvious point, that climate change is real, that we should do something about it for our children and our grandchildren. Yet, we have this massive ideological war on the fundamentals of the science. So, if you recall, in the first term, we had this debate about whether or not we should impose, essentially, a price on carbon, to reflect its true cost to society.
CHOPRAUse those resources to plow back into the investments for new, cleaner sources of energy. And that would move our country on the right path. So, obviously, I share that view, right? That's President Obama's idea. I'm on that side of the world. We don't have that consensus in Congress, but let me tell you where we do have consensus. Did you know, Kojo, that we have a billion dollar hidden tax on the solar installation industry in this country? If you compared the cost to install solar panels in Germany against the cost to install solar panels in the US, it's about a billion dollar gap, not because of the cost of the underlying technology, or the physics of it.
CHOPRABut on the softer stuff. The permitting processes. The financing process. Customer acquisition process. So, here's the challenge that the Department of Energy issued. What if we could form teams, mayors, entrepreneurs, solar panel installation staff? Form teams to implement solar panels at a dollar a watt. That's a magic number, Kojo. If we can hit a dollar a watt installed, we're at grid parody, which means that it's -- even without the price on carbon, it's just as effective to buy solar. If we hit that magic number, which our goal is to hit by 2020, wouldn't there be bipartisan consensus that says, let's reduce the bureaucracy, the red tape. If we can make solar cheaper through innovation, wow. Who's against that?
CHOPRASo, there's a 10 million dollar prize, that the department has put forward, to the first team that can successfully implement a dollar a watt pricing structure for the installation side of ledger. If they can do so across a number of homes. And anyone can compete. You can visit Race to the Rooftops at the Department of Energy and bring your creative minds to life. By the way, not unlike the tattoo artist who heard the call to action in response to the BP oil spill, who joined hands with others to design a machine capable of removing the dirty oil from the water at twice the rate of the current systems.
CHOPRAA tattoo artist in Vegas doubling the performance of oil cleanup from the water, only because he was asked. And there was an opportunity to participate. We have talented tattoo artists in every corner of the country, on every issue, Kojo. Our challenge is to find them and activate them.
NNAMDINow that you've publicized it, I can stop counting my 10 million dollars that I expected to win. Here we go to the phones. We'll start with Doug in Baltimore, Maryland. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGOh, hi. I missed your previous guest, but I'm curious about how to break into the talent search that you're having. I've been in my job in the federal government for about 20 years, and at this point, I can program anything, and I know the business domain of the job that I'm working in. But I don't know how to break in to programmers that are doing programmers' -- programming, in particular.
CHOPRAMay I ask what department you're in, without divulging too much of your personal background?
CHOPRAPerfect. So, here's an example, Kojo. Let's just put this to the test. Right now, the Social Security Administration has opened up some of its data. Can I tell you my favorite?
CHOPRADo you ever get that letter in the mail, Kojo, where it tells you how much money you've made in the last few years, and it projects what you're gonna earn in the future?
CHOPRAWe used to get that physically printed in the mail, and then for cost cutting reasons, they sort of stopped the mail. And now you can catch it electronically. So, for this gentleman who works at Social Security, the question might be, what can entrepreneurs and innovators do with the raw data in that file, since you and I can log in for free and download it? So, imagine this gentleman invites developers to a local meetup and says, hey, I'm gonna have a gathering at the Starbucks on the corner X, Y, Z in Baltimore.
CHOPRAAnd if anyone wants to join in, or there's a webinar, I'd like to hear your ideas. I'd like to share mine. How can we strengthen the retirement security for the American people by leveraging the data that's freely now available through Social Security? And now, this gentleman can join forces with people from all over the country to build prototypes, new ideas, and then to have those showcased, to celebrate what's possible and to build on that culture. Now, hopefully, the administrator at Social Security would honor and celebrate and reward this wonderful talent.
CHOPRAAnd we've done it, for example, at the Department of Health and Human Services, under Secretary Sebelius. She's, every six months, launched a program to celebrate front line workers who do stuff like this. And it's called HHS Innovates. Your friends can nominate this gentleman for an award. If they don't do that at Social Security, you could join forces with your friends at HHS to see how health and retirement security can combine. Maybe you do something collaboratively with the two of them. Maybe combine your Medicare Blue Button file with your retirement security file and create even an uber-security platform.
CHOPRAThis gentleman has the right to do this today. Doesn't have to seek permission. And hopefully will be honored and rewarded for that success through programs like HHS Innovates.
NNAMDIDoug, thank you very much for your call. And, if you decide to follow any of the advice you got from Aneesh Chopra, remember where you got it. Good luck to you. And on to Tim in Arlington, Virginia. Tim, your turn.
TIMYeah, good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I just have a couple comments. First of all, I think the -- in order to make the federal work force more innovative, we really have to change the culture. I really don't think there are the incentives, right now, to take chances and be innovative. So...
NNAMDIAllow me to have Aneesh Chopra deal with that, because the point he makes in this book is that there are a lot of federal workers who are innovative. The fact of the matter, however, is that if they are encouraged and rewarded, then that would fundamentally change the culture.
CHOPRAYeah, there's actually two -- on balance sheet and off balance sheet innovation. So, if you're on the payroll and you're doing something like, let's say you -- I don't know which department you work in, sir.
CHOPRAOkay, but let's assume you have a friend or a neighbor at the Department of -- I don't know, Education. And you have a day job. And you have to process financial aid, if you will. You don't want to be going rogue and trying new ideas in the midst of your job, and having something not work. And the poor student doesn't get the information that they need. So, that wouldn't be a very good idea. But, departments are establishing innovation programs where you have the freedom to try new ideas.
CHOPRAFor -- my favorite, of course, is the Medicare Innovation Center, powered with 10 billion dollars in the Affordable Care Act, and the freedom to try any new ideas in the payment of healthcare delivery, to improve quality, lower cost. If you joined that department, you are responsible for, encouraged, and celebrated if you actually help bring these new payment models to life. The off balance sheet, however, is available to everybody. I go back to the website data.gov. Anybody in their private life, as a citizen, including a government employee who happens to work on a data file that's now publicly available on data.gov, can, at home, in the evening, try some new ideas on how to make that file more useful for people.
CHOPRAI mentioned the infant car seat. There are a whole range of things. Safety recall notices, et cetera. And if you do so, being able to present back those results, not only to your superiors inside government, but also to the public in the form of media and communications. This is very central now. In the internet economy, you'll see what's called the open APIs, These are programming interfaces that allow anyone to plug into the systems and build what's useful on top. And the exciting point is that now, under President Obama's executive order on open data, the default setting is that new databases will have the APIs built in, so anyone can plug in and use them to create products and services.
CHOPRAYou don't need permission. And you don't need, you know, to kind of go through a legal, political approval process, if you want to invent all the stuff on your own time. If you want to do it on your day job, you gotta go through a process like the Medicare Innovation Center.
NNAMDIA lot of peoples' relationship to the government, however, is based on perception, and I'm glad that Tim says that he is not employed by the government, but he's nevertheless commenting on the culture, because Tim, what is your perception of the culture of the government?
TIMIt's -- it needs to be changed. I think the major stumbling blocks for the federal work force is that we do not have those incentives -- the HR incentives in place, so if you're talking about a private organization, you know, they're driven by the bottom line. You don't have the same situation in public organization. And so, you know, OPM rules, I think, are holding us back.
NNAMDIOkay. We're gonna have to take a short break. When we come back, I'll ask Aneesh Chopra to address that question. And if you have called also, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you haven't, and you'd like to, the number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. What tech lessons from the private sector do you think would make the government more efficient? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Aneesh Chopra. He is former Chief Technology Officer for the United States and co-founder of Hunch Analytics. He's the author of the book, "Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government." Aneesh Chopra joins us in studio. You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Our last caller Tim, was talking about what he thought might be a lack of incentive in some parts of the federal government.
CHOPRALet me begin by thanking Tim for the comment, and actually agreeing with him. You know, in the first term on the administration, I was sitting with Peter Orszag, then the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, as part of the senior staff meetings. Peter was very interested in an employee survey that's been commissioned every year, and it includes questions like, do I have, you know, the freedom to innovate, essentially? I don't have the quote on the survey, but these kinds of questions are really important. Peter, under the leadership of the President, really made this survey instrument an important priority in evaluating the success of our agency leaders.
CHOPRAAnd I remembered David Kappos, the head of the Patent and Trademark Office, really paid attention to this survey, and had one of the most impressive results, in a couple of years time. Front line workers in PTO feeling they were empowered to innovate. And so, you need that leadership and you need that support structure. And you also need some of that creativity. You know, one of the things that David did early was they still had old technology running their patent databases. And they wanted to make the information publicly available, but it would cost them a lot of money to upgrade the systems and then to publish.
CHOPRASo, David put out a no dollar bid and said, can any vendor, at no cost, come into our old clunky systems, extract the valuable patent data, and make it publicly available? And there were some clear rules, that you couldn't horde the data or commercialize it in sort of a limiting way. There were like a dozen companies, maybe eight, maybe 10, that said they'd love to do it. Ultimately, Google was querying the data every morning, I think, from like two a.m. to six a.m. And if you look at Google patents today, they've opened up all this data.
CHOPRAMy father has three patents to his name, and it was so much more fun querying my dad's patents on Google Patents, and I could learn and read all the underlying data that was, perhaps, previously locked up in the older technology that was the PTO. So, leadership does matter, and culture matters.
NNAMDINote to self, book Aneesh's dad for an appearance on this broadcast at some point. We got a tweet from Raymond who said, regarding innovation in the government, the biggest problem, in my experience, is buy in and the perceived lack of infrastructure for innovation. Step one, find a manager really seeking innovative solutions, despite the added work. Step two, wait. Step three, wait. Step four, go private. Before you left the Obama administration, you wrote a memo to the President outlining what you called an open innovators tool kit.
NNAMDIWhat are the four tools you think policy makers can use to help transform government?
CHOPRAThat employee, who just tweeted -- now -- I went to the Kennedy School, Kojo, which studies public policy. And if I went to the gym to work out my muscles, I was working out muscles on how to negotiate with Congress, how to establish cost benefit approaches to rule making. These were the tools of government that I was handed, and they're not easy for anyone to influence. You might go five years before the program you run is re-authorized to get back into the Congressional debate.
CHOPRASo, this gentleman's comment about waiting and waiting, you know, ties to those two levers. I think there's a new tool in the tool kit for us to go to the gym and work out. New muscles. And these muscles are the following. One, every employee has the right to recommend new data sets that should be made publicly available. So, if you happen to be sitting on a data set that you think should be made publicly available, you should absolutely go to your data.gov team. There's a point of contact on every agency's website.
CHOPRAJust go to agents -- whatever the agency name is dot gov, slash open. You can email that person and say, here's a data set I'd like to recommend. Number two, you can work with the private sector collaboratively to lower the barriers to entry and to improve opportunities for more innovation through standards work. We did this to help lower the barriers on energy data, healthcare data, education data. Third, every federal agency, thanks to a bipartisan act of Congress, the reauthorization of the America Competes Act, now has the ability to issue a challenge or a prize, up to 50 million dollars, in lieu of clunky, broken procurement cycles.
CHOPRAAnd you can go to challenge.gov and you can reach your agency point of contact to say, I'd like to -- instead of doing an RFP for something, instead, issue a challenge. And then, last but not least, really, where we started the conversation today, you could nominate a particular problem that needs fixing for a lean startup. Where you bring the best and the brightest inside government with the best and the brightest from outside government into teams that can be fed with two pizzas, Kojo. Two pizzas, right?
CHOPRAThat's a small team. Give them a very clear mandate and allow them to iterate, understand the customer's need, pilot something, test it, get feedback results. Change what needs to be done. Roll out more. And that culture of a lean startup is now permeating a number of agencies, and it's at the heart of the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program.
NNAMDIAnd here's what that competition on those prizes can do. Victor Garcia was working at a Sizzler steakhouse. What did he end up doing?
CHOPRAWell, this is a fascinating story. First, some context, Kojo. We have a very awkward Augustine rule. Norman Augustine is one of the legends in Washington, had been in the Defense Department, and now, just generally a rock star guru. In the 80s, he made a prediction. Because of the escalating costs of producing single combat aircraft, by the year 2054, the production of one combat aircraft will exceed the entirety of the DOD budget. And that was in the 80s. The Economist, a couple years ago, checked progress against that really awkward goal, and we're right on track with the Joint Strike Fighter.
CHOPRAWe're right where we are on that curve, which is terrible. So, the military's R&D Wing, DARPA, said look, we need to find a way to dramatically cut the cost and time to design and produce new combat vehicles, combat support vehicles. And one of the ways to do this is crowd sourcing. So, Victor Garcia had been -- he's, of course, a Mexican immigrant, was at one point, a Sizzler waiter, saw an ad that said, you should be an auto designer. Went on to get some technical backgrounds, and had an entry level job at a trucking company.
CHOPRAAnd from personal motivations, his wife was pregnant, he lacked health insurance, he needed to do something to make some money to help cover the safe pregnancy. He gets a tweet, reads a tweet from the Defense Department, and through a group he was a part of at local motors, that went to 20,000 people. And said, if you can design the next combat support vehicle, that can help two injured soldiers off the battlefield, you get 7500 dollars. Victor's like, I'm gonna do this. Puts his heart and soul into it.
CHOPRAAnd doesn't let his background and resume get in the way of his talent. As you could imagine, wins the day. They produce a prototype of his designed vehicle. By the way, Kojo, to put this in perspective, it takes three weeks for the Defense Department to put a comma in an RFP. And here, Victor had three weeks to design the combat support vehicle. One of my favorite days on the job, Kojo, was when I had the chance to call DARPA and ask if they could have Victor and the team show up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a couple weeks later, because the President of the United States wanted to personally thank them.
CHOPRAAnd that's the point, Kojo. We have Victor and Victoria Garcias in every single corner of the country, ready to bring their talents to solve the challenges we face. And that's how we're gonna get there, not because Congress is gonna sort of settle its ideological differences in a big battle royal. But rather, we've opened up the government. We've created the foundations for an innovative state. These handshakes and hand offs are gonna allow us to do it. That's why I'm so hopeful.
NNAMDIHere is Kavitha in Chantilly, Virginia. Kavitha, your turn.
KAVITHAThank you, Kojo. I am so happy to hear this conversation. I literally just walked out of a conference and turned on the radio and heard you all talking about this and was so excited. So, Aneesh, you've spoken at (unintelligible) conferences before.
KAVITHAThis was a Management of Change conference, and this year's theme was about redefining the 21st century government brand, and when we talked about putting this together, the thought was government was known for doing cool things. Putting a man on the moon, creating the internet, you know, GPS technology. And now, when people look at, especially the IT community, it's like we can't manage the programs -- it's identified with a lot of failure and inertia and waste. And so, we wanted to talk about this and come up with tangible ways to change this.
KAVITHASo, this conference was over 450 people, 100 governments, program managers, and senior level attendees, as well as industry. And it was a fascinating conversation. And what I loved about it, and your show now, is we were talking about exactly the same thing. And that gives me hope that we're at a tipping point, that we'll actually create some change. And we're looking at two things. Perception versus reality, right? So, there is definitely problems, and we've talked about tangible things that could be done on the acquisition front, on the HR front, on the culture front that could drive change.
KAVITHAAnd but also the perception, because it's not all bad. And there's a lot of good stuff happening in government, except it doesn't make for the cool headlines. And we want to work with our colleagues in the press to give as much face time and, you know, publicity, to the good stuff that government does. And, you know, all of the stuff that you've talked about, you know. Tammy McCullier (sp?) from challenge.gov was there, so we talked about innovating acquisitions using the challenge.gov platform. Dennis Allard from Business USA was there, where we talked about improving customer service through our businesses…
NNAMDIIn other words, you're seeing lights at the end of this tunnel.
CHOPRAYes. Kavitha, let me begin by saying, in the John F. Kennedy administration, during the transition team, the mantra was, are you good enough for government, Kojo? That's the spirit. But let me make one slight friendly amendment to what Kavitha talked about. This is not so much as saying, government is a box and let's make the box look better. Talk about it being more efficient and effective and celebrate the box. A big part of my book is this idea of handshakes and hand offs. That is to say, government is increasingly, on a bipartisan basis, shaking hands on these techniques.
CHOPRAOpening up data. We mentioned a few others where all of the enabling legislation and commitments are now in place, thanks to this handshake between parties, between levels of government. But the key is the hand off. You can't have -- it's necessary to have handshakes, but it's absolutely not sufficient. You need the hand offs to us. So, it's me. It's the emergency room doctor who came to visit me at the White House, frustrated about patients coming to the E.R. that should be getting their care at lower cost settings outside, wanting to know how he can be more innovative with government, not without, , so ultimately found a database of all the low-cost federally-qualified health centers that is available at hhs.gov, but no one kind of logs into that site when they're feeling ill.
CHOPRALet me think about logging in to hhs.gov and searching for a -- that's not what people do. So his iPhone app, iTriage, incorporated that data into his own app. So if the app says you don't need to go to the ER, go visit these local clinics, thanks to that GPS chip and the ability to present the location of that low-cost clinic, he generated 100,000 referrals to low-cost federally-qualified health centers, no taxpayer dollars, no legal framework, no procurement, just an entrepreneur taking a handoff from Washington, accessing the data, enriching people's lives that he supports.
CHOPRAAnd the punchline, Kojo, sells his company for undisclosed multiple millions of dollars to Aetna, so he's making money, creating jobs, helping people live better lives because of the handshakes and handoffs that I write about in the book.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Kavita, (sp?) thank you very much for your call. If you've called, stay on the line. The number's 800-433-8850. How can the government attract top talent in the technology realm? You may have some suggestions for us. You can do that at our website, kojoshow.org, were you can also find a live stream of this broadcast currently taking place. So you can follow it there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Aneesh Chopra. He is author of the book "Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government." He's former chief technology officer for the United States and co-founder of Hunch Analytics. We can't have you here without asking about the biggest technology snafu the Obama Administration has had, healthcare.gov. We heard after the botched rollout of the new healthcare exchange website that the problem was the procurement rules. How does the government procure technology services? And what's the problem?
CHOPRAKojo, this was a heartbreaking moment for anyone looking to improve people's lives on one of the most important areas of change the country had seen in a generation. If you took a look at what actually happened, as we now know it, the department actually had to rely on a 2007 procurement vehicle which had a limited number of vendors on it to really provide the technological support services to build out healthcare.gov.
CHOPRAAnd it's pretty safe to say that those limited vendors didn't have a lot of experience building the equivalent of an insurance marketplace. So you might ask the question, why? We don't know the exact answer as to why CMS chose this path. But I might hypothesize one. I write in the book about a Defense Department memo written a few years ago that basically points out a terrible culture in Washington.
CHOPRAIf you're a vendor and you've bid on an open procurement and you lose, your knee-jerk reaction is to file a protest. Inevitably, you might, you know, get lucky, and the arbiter might rule that this an unfair procurement. Something was not done quite right. And so let's reopen the bidding. And you have a second chance.
CHOPRABut what's the loss to you, right? You already lost the contract. Why not protest? And this culture of protest, according to this Defense memo, really meant that the sufferers are the agencies and the constituents we serve who have to wait for these legal issues to get resolved months, if not years, later. So I don't know if CMS was calculating this problem. But my presumption is that they looked at this reality and said, if we did a truly fair and open competition, there probably wasn't any time to allow for this sort of additional protest period waiting and waiting and waiting to get the job done if, in fact, you know, that was to happen.
CHOPRASo I don't know. We haven't heard that answer yet. But that is an example, I hypothesize, as to why we have this culture of procurement. Now, we've already begun chipping away at it, Kojo. If you take a look at one of the first innovation fellow programs, we saw the creation of an RFP-EZ, which said, for small-dollar website projects under $150,000, five federal agencies did something very interesting.
CHOPRAThey took the same requirements, put them through the annoying FedBizOpps.gov. And it's literally called FedBizOpps.gov where they have to list all the procurements, and you have to be a qualified vendor and all the rest. And they took the same into this RFP-EZ platform where anyone could apply. And you can see where the story goes. The five agencies found, across the board, a 30 percent savings, hundreds of people that had never applied to be a government contractor before bringing their ideas forward, lowering barriers to entry, expanding the pool of solvers, an important part of procurement reform.
CHOPRAAnd, frankly, the other part is introducing more capacity in the government to build these tools even if they didn't go through a large-scale procurement. You know, you mentioned healthcare.gov. But you failed to mention what year you talk of healthcare.gov. The version that went live in July of 2010, a mere 3 1/2 months after the signing of the bill, where there wasn't time to do a massive procurement, but rather use the best federal employees, led by my successor Todd Park and my friend Megan Phillips, combined with a few external developers who were brought into the team, they formed this lean startup, Kojo.
CHOPRAAnd they built the nation's largest database of public and private insurance options and made that database open. Not only did President Obama feel confident to film the very first presidential endorsement video of a website, which he did for the healthcare.gov version that went live in 2010, we opened up the data, so literally U.S. News and World Report Today has their health insurance finder website powered by the data from that original healthcare.gov.
CHOPRASo this is a multi-pronged problem. The great news is President Obama has said, I will fix procurement. It's not often you hear a president of the United States talk of procurement, but this is our moment, everyone. We've got to step up to the plate and fix this once and for all.
NNAMDIHere is Arthur in Alexandria, Va. Arthur, your turn.
ARTHURGood afternoon, Kojo. Good to hear you. I was in civil service for many years. And I've noticed more and more, in the old days, if we had a technical system we wanted to do, we'd roll our own. Now, the decisions seem to be in the hands of the non-technical people who are either completely incompetent to understand what's going on, or they're in the position of members of Congress who say, I will not raise your taxes so we don't have the money to pay for things that we need. Where do we go? How do we do that?
CHOPRASo there's a third path, Arthur. So if the old path is we have the technical capacity to do it within our manpower, so it doesn't, you know, "cost more," per se -- it's staff time -- you know, if we lack that capacity, we've got to find way to kind of backfill that capacity. That's a longer-term strategy. If we can't simply outsource this and procure it, you know, 'cause we don't have the money for it, that's a second issue. The third path, Kojo, is what -- and we're going to transition, I presume, at some point to the VA...
NNAMDIThat's where we're going.
CHOPRASo let me give you an example. The VA in -- about two or three years ago, took their entire software code...
NNAMDIThey set up a contest to develop software that would let veterans book doctor's appointments as easily as they make an open table restaurant reservation.
CHOPRAYeah. Schedule on your own. Yes. And we're going to come to that story. But what they did is they laid this database into the open source community. So to this -- Arthur's point, literally as we speak, Arthur, anybody that feels like they have a way to extend the IT capability of the VA can go to the Osara (sp?) website, plug in and prove that their extended service works. They don't have to do an RFP procurement, what have you. They can prove in this test bed that they can operationalize, which means the equivalent of the app store mentality is available.
CHOPRANow, it's a different question, Arthur, whether they can then take that app store and put it into production in one of the VA clinics. But it is technically there, Arthur, that third path. Put the data into open source, invite anyone to plug in using these open interfaces that are well-documented, well-reported, and then invite those -- not only government employees, but external companies to plug into the system and extend the value. That's where we are.
CHOPRAAnd we showed this -- the scheduling competition that Kojo just spoke about, listen, you can't make this stuff up. The winners -- there were three -- won an open source coalition led by Hewlett-Packard. A lot of the federal agency, you know, traditional IT procurement folks proved that they could plug in and work, make functional, a scheduling service. The other two though, Kojo -- one was a startup that teamed up with other stakeholders. And they, you know, beat the odds and came in first place to introduce their scheduling service.
CHOPRAAnd then my favorite, there's a hospital in California that took the original veteran code base called VistA, installed it in their own hospital, added the scheduling feature for themselves, and when they saw the competition, simply handed back to the government their scheduling module, and it, too, worked. So, Arthur, there's this third path. Open up the platforms, invite others to contribute, and that creates a lot more -- it lowers the barriers to entry, and a lot more opportunity for innovation.
NNAMDIBut the whole point of the competition that I referred to was to develop software to let veterans book doctor's appointments as easily as they'd make a restaurant reservation. And now the Veterans Administration is in the hot seat for the deaths of 40 vets in Arizona who were waiting to see a doctor. How did technology for making appointments work for or fail the vets in Arizona?
CHOPRAYou know, Kojo, this is one of the most depressing stories to read. I come from Virginia. As you know, 10 percent of our population are veterans, very, very important constituency. And there's way too much platitude on the need to improve support service to veterans. And we've got to put into production a lot of these newer technologies. The scheduling systems in the VA were not the cause of these challenges, from what I'm reading.
CHOPRABut they can be part of the solution, which is to say, if we had an open database, an inventory of all the available appointment slots, and we had the scheduling systems that I'd just spoken of, that had already proven they can work in this competition...
CHOPRA...then the veterans, the source of truth, right, I know the day I've requested the appointment. And we can observe all the information about what happened in that scheduling. And so, short answer to your important question, Kojo, we have the capacity to bring on self-scheduling services for veterans. We've proven that these three technologies work. If there are others that think they have even better solutions, there's no reason they can't plug into that same Osara (sp?) system right now.
CHOPRAAnd then it's up to the VA to make the management decision to put those into production in the field. And that, I think that's the test you're going to see inside the VA. I'm very thankful President Obama assigned Rob Nabors this responsibility. I know Rob. Rob is one of President Obama's trusted advisors, and he is a get-it-done guy. So I have greater confidence today that we're going to see these solutions be brought to life.
NNAMDIYour latest venture's a company called Hunch Analytics, and you're working on a project involving unemployed veterans. Tell us about the company and its mission.
CHOPRAWell, the broader mission is to bring to life these open datasets in combination with private datasets to create hopefully better services for the American people. In this particular example, I have the honor and privilege of working with some of the best and brightest minds in the technology industry, led by the co-founder of a company called Workday, one of the leading cloud-based HR systems, who has a personal passion for helping veterans.
CHOPRAWhen I was at the White House, Kojo, we created this open database called the Veterans Job Bank. Any employer in America who wanted to signal that they were going to make a specific hiring commitment could do so at no cost. They simply sprinkle this metadata standard on the job posting anywhere in the Internet, and it's discoverable. So what we're doing now is we're trying to understand, what are the skills associated with each of those job postings? And how can we map those universe of jobs and the skills associated with a map of the country where unemployed veterans live?
CHOPRAThis could and should help local work force development agencies think about ways they can close the skills gap. Should the local school offer a six-month boot camp to close the particular skill that's needed to fill the new jobs? Should there be a decision made by the employers to waive certain requirements, to say, we'll hire you and then put you through some kind of an internal training process to close the gap? A lot of possibilities if we shined light on the skills gap for unemployed veterans. And that's a work in progress, Kojo. Honored to have a wonderful coalition of partners to make that happen.
NNAMDIHere's Andrew in Washington, D.C. Andrew, your turn.
ANDREWThanks, Kojo. This is very hitting home for me because I'm a program manager for the DOD software -- we do software within the DOD. I'm an active duty military guy. And what I see is there's massive contracts that go to, like, Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin for software development portfolios. And the way that the money comes over from Congress is completely line items. And so as a software guy, I appreciate that, if we're going to be agile and we're going to try to put new pieces of software out, they have to -- some will fail, and some will do better than others.
ANDREWI mean, we need to be able to move money between them. Unfortunately, the way Congress sends it over, they don't want to do that. They -- it's not lean. They don't actually like lean. They don't like agile 'cause that means some things might die. And so I'm wondering if there's a way to fix that so that we can have, like, a pool of money...
ANDREW...and work within that and, you know, get to better solutions more quickly. I...
NNAMDIHere's Aneesh Chopra.
CHOPRAAndrew, God bless you, and I really do hope that you have the chance to connect to my successor, Todd Park, and the team that's focused on building out platforms. But the first thing I would ask you to do is to look up the following program, DARPA Transformative Apps. This was a $50 million program that was launched in 2009, I believe, with this vision in mind, Andrew. The idea was...
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left.
CHOPRAYeah, Andrew, quickly, imagine an app store on the Android platform that would be available for anyone -- if you had a, you know, Pashtun to English translator for a war fighter in Afghanistan, instead of having the DOD pick the one translator to rule them all, imagine an app store where there could be 50 of them with their own variations and that the war fighters could, amongst themselves, determine which one was working for them in what particular community.
CHOPRAAnd the vendor's only getting paid based on the download and usage of said app. It's not only a technological problem. It's a business model problem. Please, Andrew, check out Transformative Apps and find a way to bring that to your program.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Andrew. Aneesh Chopra is former chief technology officer for the United States, co-founder of Hunch Analytics. He's the author of the book "Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government." Are we going to be seeing your name on a ballot anytime soon again?
CHOPRAI don't know. But it was a lot of fun giving it that first shot.
NNAMDITook a stab at lieutenant governor in Virginia's Democratic primary last year. Aneesh Chopra, thank you so much for joining us.
CHOPRAProud to have earned a silver medal in that race, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Poet Safia Elhillo joins us to discuss her first young adult novel, "Home is Not a Country."
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) talks about the county's vaccine rollout and making the tax code more progressive. And D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) talks about disparities in the District's vaccinations and how the pandemic has affected plans to bring a hospital east of the Anacostia River.
For almost a year, many local theaters and music venues have been entirely shutdown. How are they coping, and could the $15 billion federal aid set aside for the arts be enough to "Save Our Stages?"