Aneesh ChopraIf you ask the average American citizen to cite organizations that embody innovation and remarkable customer experiences, Apple, Google, and Amazon are far more likely to be named than the U.S. government. That didn’t sit well with Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer (CTO), who served from 2009 to 2012. When Chopra delivered the keynote address at SAP’s Future of Government event in Washington, D.C., last week, he encouraged his former public sector colleagues to derive lessons from the private sector as they support President Obama’s mission to “out-innovate every country on Earth.” When Chopra was CTO, he rose to that challenge, activating initiatives such as open innovation and lean startup methods.

Why does the U.S. government need a CTO?

Government, like many other mature industries, is increasingly challenged by the rapid evolution of technology and the need to transform to meet the new demands of its customers. Most services provided by the private sector today—from movie rentals to grocery shopping—are offered on-demand and on-device. There’s an expectation that public services will also be delivered in a customer-centric way.

President Obama realized the potential of technology to “leapfrog some of the intermediate stages of government-service delivery, avoiding some of the 20th-century mechanisms for delivering services and going straight to the 21st.” Chopra’s role as CTO was to serve as a change agent and entrepreneur for the United States, leveraging technology to enhance the customer experience for citizens interacting with the government.

Lessons from the private sector

In his address, Chopra emphasized the importance of deriving lessons from the private sector and cited a study by the Corporate Executive Board, “Overcoming Stall Points” (2006), which identified three major characteristics of organizations at risk of a growth stall:

1. Premium position captivity—Failure or inability to shift tactics in response to the advent of low-cost competitors or changing customer preferences.

2. Innovation management breakdown—Failure to achieve desired or required returns on investments in new products, services, and business development.

3. Talent bench shortfall—Lack of adequate leaders and staff with the skills and capabilities required for strategy execution to succeed .

Chopra cited Kodak as a classic case study of a business that epitomized these stall points and simply could not recover. Kodak invented digital photography but considered it such a threat to its core business that it chose not to move forward with it. Experts at Wharton explained that “When new technologies change the world, some companies are caught off-guard. Others see change coming and are able to adapt in time. And then there are companies like Kodak—which saw the future and simply couldn’t figure out what to do.” Chopra recognized the critical need for the U.S. government to implement significant change to avoid falling into a similar stall pattern as Kodak and other enterprises had over the past 50 years.

Open innovation to transform government

Taking a lesson from Twitter, Facebook, and other modern-day open-data platforms, Chopra and his team realized the potential to tap into the expertise of the people to innovate faster and better and have a broader impact on government services. Under the leadership of the U.S. CTO, the Administration is pursuing initiatives that seek to “liberate” government data and voluntarily contributed corporate data as fuel to spur entrepreneurship, create value, and create jobs.

One well-known example of government open data is weather information. Decades ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began making weather data available for free electronic download by anyone. Savvy entrepreneurs leveraged the free data to create weather newscasts, Web sites, mobile applications, insurance, and more—generating billions of dollars in annual economic value. Similarly, the government’s decision to make the Global Positioning System (GPS) freely available has fueled a vast array of private-sector innovations ranging from navigation systems to precision crop farming, creating huge public benefit and significant economic value.

Chopra was also successful in driving federal initiatives to open government data, such as creation of the blue button and green button initiatives out of the larger Open Data Initiative. These programs enable U.S. citizens to download and use their own health and energy data, which has led to infinite possibilities for app developers like iTriage, which uses government data to power its health app’s symptom navigator and care facility locator service.

Government’s role as impatient convener

But the government does more than share data. Another way the government helps innovators is to step back and allow the private sector to do what it does best: create jobs and opportunities for citizens. In this role, the government acts as an impatient convener, bringing together a range of experts to develop standards that enable innovation. One example is the Vets Job Bank.

Chopra and team set out to make it easier for people—including entrepreneurs, developers, business owners and educators—to plug in and benefit from government resources. A time-consuming and often expensive RFP process has been converted into one that favors lightweight product ideation, demos, and agile development with quick iterative cycles. His team launched new contests and challenges, such as hackathons and datapaloozas, in order to attract new talent to develop innovative solutions.

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