Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government

Aneesh Chopra

299 pages, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014

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The Obama administration ushered into the US federal government a renewed emphasis on innovation. Starting in 2008, I was lucky enough to be a part of that process. I served on the new president’s transition team and oversaw the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform working group. We made two significant recommendations. One was to create an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, which I would later lead. The other was to create a new White House position: chief technology officer (CTO) of the United States. The first person to serve in that role was Aneesh Chopra, author of the new book Innovative State.

In the book, Chopra starts by offering a brief but compelling history of government-enabled technological innovation in the United States. In 1843, for example, Congress appropriated seed money to Samuel F.B. Morse so that he could build an experimental telegraph line. Similarly, the US Army pioneered the use of mechanization and interchangeable parts. Chopra notes that the army’s “arsenal system,” as it was called, helped “to revolutionize old industries like sewing and create new ones like bicycle and automobile manufacturing.”

Chopra then presents an overview of later efforts within the federal government to keep up with technological change. He highlights in particular the work of Jim Pinkerton, deputy director for domestic policy in the White House under President George H.W. Bush, and Elaine Kamarck, a senior advisor in the Clinton administration. Pinkerton promoted a so-called “new paradigm,” which Chopra summarizes as follows: “The problem was not only that government had grown overweight; it had become antiquated in a rapidly changing world.” Kamarck, working with Vice President Al Gore, helped lead the Reinventing Government initiative, an effort that was guided by four principles: Cut red tape. Put customers first. Empower employees. Get back to basics.

As the first CTO of the United States, Chopra built on that earlier work. From President Obama, moreover, he received a mandate to invest broadly in four areas: research and development, human capital, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and broadband access. In the book, he discusses his work on those issues. But he focuses mainly on laying out his vision for a more “innovative state.” Here, he draws on a memo that he wrote for the president in 2012, after announcing that he would soon leave the administration. In the memo, he outlined what he called an Open Innovator’s Toolkit—a set of four tools that policy makers can deploy at any level of government, anywhere in the world.

  • Open data relates to “enabling the public to access more of the information that is stored in file cabinets throughout the government.”
  • Impatient convening has to do with “inviting the private sector to work collaboratively on standards that lower barriers to entry and increase competition” in pivotal industries.
  • Challenges and prizes are a matter of “casting a much wider net to solve a particular problem” and a way to “[pay] for results rather than flashy proposals.”
  • Attracting talent involves “recruiting entrepreneurs into the government” and pairing them “with similarly skilled public officials in a startup setting.”

In chapters that cover each of these tools, Chopra cites experiences and ideas that emerged from his time in the Obama administration. In his discussion of open data, he points to Todd Park, who served as CTO of the US Department of Health and Human Services and who became CTO of the United States after Chopra left that post. Park realized that the potential of open data lay not just in releasing raw information, but also in engaging outside innovators. Chopra, quoting Park, writes: “The trick was not in dictating the next step, but in allowing ‘everyone else in the universe to actually tap into the data to build all kinds of tools and services and applications and features that we couldn’t even dream up ourselves, let alone execute and grow to scale.’”

Chopra offers great examples of bringing new kinds of talent into government. The Executive in Residence (EIR) program at the US Food and Drug Administration, he explains, connected “external and internal talent, and asked them to apply lean startup principles to a clearly-defined mission.” One achievement of EIR was an improved regulatory process that led to faster approval of proposed medical devices. In another initiative, Park helped set up the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which gathers people from multiple agencies to work on ambitious projects. One such project was RFP EZ—an effort to update the contracting process. The first request for proposals under the new process attracted 270 companies that had never before competed for federal contracts.

Chopra provides useful insight about using the toolkit that he describes. Yet his focus on tools leads him to avoid a broader discussion about creating social impact. Achieving social change requires more than tools. It requires innovation not just at the level of “what,” but also at the level of “how.” It requires us to redesign the entire government operating system—by changing mandatory funding to invest in programs that work, for example, or by creating partnerships that will outlast any one administration.

In Innovative State, there is little acknowledgment of the civic organizations and nonprofit groups that account for about 11 percent of the US workforce. There is also little discussion of cross-disciplinary approaches, new types of multi-sector partnerships, or the need to invest in training talent and building capacity within the government itself. (Chopra seems to assume that new talent can come only from the corporate sector.) The problems that government confronts are multi-dimensional, and the solutions must be multi-dimensional as well.