By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 27, 2009
Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra met nearly a decade ago as entrepreneurs in Northern Virginia's Indian American business community. They worked together in Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's administration and then as technology and innovation advisers on President Obama's transition team.
Now the two longtime friends will work in tandem to help meet Obama's ambitious goals of using technology to improve public access to government data, create new jobs, expand broadband services, reform the way health records are stored and build a modern electric grid.
Chopra, Virginia's secretary of technology, last week was named the nation's first chief technology officer, although he still awaits confirmation by the Senate. The long-awaited announcement comes six weeks after the administration named Kundra, former chief technology officer for the District, to the post of federal chief information officer.
The chief technology officer will focus on overall technology policy and innovation strategies across departments while the chief information officer will oversee day-to-day information technology spending and operations within agencies.
They will work within the White House with direct access to the president. Chopra will be in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Kundra in the Office of Management and Budget.
Some in Washington's technology policy circles had questioned whether the jobs were too large and unwieldy for tech czars who have never worked on the federal stage and will now have to navigate deep-rooted federal agency structures and processes.
There also had been much debate about whether the CTO job should be filled by a tech industry veteran rather than someone with more policy experience.
"They face huge challenges of inertia and ramping up new staff . . . but they know how to bring the potential of technology to government," said Blair Levin, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus who was also an adviser on the transition team. "Silicon Valley has a vested interest in not so much having their own person in the job, but in someone who can hear what they have to say and translate that into government."
Their appointments to the newly created federal positions have been generally well-received. Supporters say both have track records for taking innovative approaches to using technology in government. For example, Chopra, 37, created a social network for clinicians in remote health clinics, and also spearheaded a state-sponsored venture capital fund to let Virginia agencies try out unconventional tools to improve their services.
Kundra, 34, got attention for inviting software developers to use the District's government data to create Internet and cellphone applications intended to give citizens easier access to city information. His efforts to let the public watch the city's contract-letting process helped spur the development of Recovery.gov, designed to track stimulus funding.
"We are both going to be driving innovation, whether it's health IT and broadband or how federal agencies use technology," Kundra said in an interview. "We're also embracing the open government principles to make sure we are democratizing data and to make sure agencies deliver results. At the same time, we need to leverage the ingenuity of the American people and the private sector to help us."
Chopra could not be reached for comment.
People who have worked with the men say they have different strengths. Kundra has an engineer's eye for the nuts and bolts of technology and how government-wide systems should operate. Chopra operates more like a business chief executive, organizing the pieces of a complex technology agenda.
Before joining Kaine's cabinet, Chopra was managing director of the Advisory Board Co., a Washington health-care think tank. He was also one of the founders of Avatar Capital, a venture fund that invested $11 million into 18 start-ups, and he served as president of TiE-DC, an organization of entrepreneurs of Indian heritage. Kundra had started two technology firms before Chopra recommended him for Virginia's assistant secretary of commerce and trade, and later as the assistant secretary of technology.
In 2007, Kundra joined D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration as chief technology officer. He was known for putting in long hours, sending off e-mails to staffers at 3 a.m. and on weekends and speaking quickly and decisively. Not all corners of the District bureaucracy welcomed his fast-moving style, and Kundra acknowledged he had to learn to adapt.
Just after Kundra was named to the CIO post in March, federal authorities charged two D.C. technology office managers and a subcontractor in a bribery scheme, but officials have said that Kundra is not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Of the three dozen people on Obama's transition team, Chopra and Kundra were at the time the only ones holding jobs in the public sector. While on the team, they often exchanged e-mails about policy issues at 2 a.m.
The duo will be tasked with modifying budgets, organizing federal employees and contractors, and reworking technology systems all while stimulus money is being distributed to new projects.
"The biggest challenge here is that we have so many things moving forward at the same time," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington public interest group. "There's so much money and so many agencies involved, we have to make sure someone is forming a policy framework so we're not investing in technology just for technology's sake."
Edward W. Felten, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, said Chopra will likely "serve as a kind of ambassador" to the technology community.
"It's a job that requires a broad set of skills," he said. "Including both a knowledge of technology and the ability to connect with the industry while operating within the government."