Last week the US Senate unanimously confirmed Aneesh Chopra as the nation’s first federal CTO and an associate director for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Previously Chopra served as Virginia’s secretary for technology. He was chosen over such technological heavyweights as Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior.
With the confirmation of Chopra, the Obama Administration has rounded out his senior technology/management team, having put in place a first-ever federal Chief Information Officer, Vivek Kundra: a first- ever CTO, Chopra and chief performance officer Jeffrey Zients, a former management consultant whose official title is deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Chopra will also function as part of OMB.
These three will oversee much the President’s broad- brush technology agenda which includes creating a national health records system, creating transparency – a Web site or sites that makes the government’s business accessible to ordinary citizens -- upgrading homeland security system and bringing innovation to the American economy.
I don’t know about you, but in reviewing the backgrounds of those charged with bringing about these changes and in assessing what’s on the White House’s IT menu, I hear alarm bells going off. Let’s start with Kundra and Chopra. The President is a big believer in social networking tools as are his new CIO and CTO. As secretary of technology for the state of Virginia, his former post, Chopra did some innovative things with social network technologies including supporting a social network built on Ning to connect health-care clinicians in small towns.
Going into the Virginia job, Chopra admittedly lacked technological experience. He conceded he was no expert on technical systems: "What I brought to the table was an understanding of the capabilities of new (Web 2.0) technologies and how they might advance a particular agenda,” he told The Washington Post. neither Chopra nor Kundra have done much heavy lifting in that department.
As DC’s CTO, Kundra ran a sizeable shop, dealing with 80 or so agencies and focusing heavily on providing residents with tinformation through Twitter and Facebook, but the kind of experience Chopra and Kundra have doesn’t make them
the ideal candidates to deal for some of the real heavy lifting that is part and parcel of their new jobs. For example, they must try to integrate scores of disparate IT and data storage and collection systems that don’t work in conjunction with one another for the most part, are in some cases redundant and often have been built and are
being operated by outside contractors. All the social networking tools in the world aren’t going to untangle that Gordian knot.
And as for tackling Obama’s technology agenda, let’s look at one initiative that’s on the front burner – a national health care records system. Consider, the American Hospital Assn. recently reported that a major percentage of non-federal hospitals are either canceling or postponing most of their IT related projects including Electronic Health Records (EHR), not a good sign for an Administration with Obama’s healthcare aspirations.
Also the White House might take note that Britain has spent at least 13 billion pounds trying to digitize its health system. Today the project, which began in 2002, is four years behind schedule and has proven so difficult that two of the major contractors Fijutsu and Accenture fell by the wayside (CSC and BT remain).
Point is, any significant government IT project comes with enormous privacy, security and stake holder buy-in concerns, not to mention cost overruns and project delays. Big ambitious need to be tempered with equally large doses of realism.
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