Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My Interview with Aneesh Chopra

Virginia Gentleman: “I just finished your book, “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government.” I would recommend it to all those interested in public policy.

In this age where we are searching for things that both ends of the political spectrum can agree on it seems that the ideas in your book are perfect for common ground. A leaner, more efficient, less costly government should be the consensus. What has the reaction been to your book?”

Aneesh Chopra:
“I’ve observed three reactions – first, readers tell me they hadn’t read much before about the ideas and case studies in the book, from our history of benefiting from a pioneering government, to the more contemporary stories suggesting both parties can, and have, worked well together to pass an open innovation agenda; second, they are more optimistic about the future after reading it as much of what I describe is contrary to the more popular narrative that we are somehow stuck; and finally, for a few entrepreneurial readers, I’ve heard promising startup ideas that (hopefully) will become wildly successful businesses and solve big societal problems at the same time!”

Virginia Gentleman
: You mentioned the Clinton administration’s reinventing government effort in the early 1990’s. The ideas in your book seems to take REGO a step further. How would you describe your ideas compared with earlier reform of government initiatives?

Aneesh Chopra:
“Thanks. Our more recent work in many ways completed the picture that had been painted by REGO (and by its intellectual champion, the bipartisan New Paradigm Society), namely by incorporating today’s modern digital technologies as a complement to the more traditional management reforms they had successfully undertaken. Back in 1993, they simply didn’t have access to this incredible array of digital technologies – cloud computing, mobile broadband, “big data” analytics tools, etc.

Borrowing a bit from Walter Isaacson’s great new book, The Innovators, much of the modern innovative era is collaborative work built on the successes that had preceeding it and I would suggest government reform efforts follow that same logic.

Perhaps to more directly answer your question – one distinguishing feature of the current reform effort is the difficulty in explaining it to the public. What I mean is that many traditional communications folks would far prefer stories where the government both conceived of, and implemented a more efficient idea – like a cheaper website that both improved service and resulted in millions of dollars in savings. In an Innovative State, the “last-mile” of the innovation is more likely developed outside of the government, and often without any requirement to disclose that it is “powered” by open government data. So while this public/private collaboration approach is harder to message, it is an approach that empowers many more entrepreneurs and innovators to actually build better services for people when and where they need them most.

Take I'm proud of the impressive “SWAT Team” that essentially rescued the site and delivered a near-flawless launch in this year’s enrollment cycle. But I’m even more excited that startups like Stride Health can build personalized recommendations engines built on the underlying data from to help Uber drivers find the right plans that meet their unique needs. Both innovations are important to understand the promise of a more Innovative State though the former gets more media attention.”

Virginia Gentleman: Your talk about some key terms. Let me ask about a few of them? What is Open source data?

Aneesh Chopra: “Open Data” is characterized by information that is accessible in “machine-readable” form without intellectual property constraint and at little to no marginal cost. An Innovative State is one that deems government data, paid for by taxpayers, be available to us in a manner that that maximizes its value without having to ask permission or fill out a form. The key phrase, “machine-readable,” is important for technical reasons as it means a computer can “read” the data and run computations against it, thus opening up many exciting avenues for entrepreneurs to deliver economic value and social impact.

Virginia Gentleman: You also mentioned Eric Ries “lean start-up principles”. Could you explain?

Aneesh Chopra:
“Eric is a serial entrepreneur, but also a management guru. He countered the myth that startups miraculously deliver billion dollar innovations through some combination of luck or brute force; rather he studied the most successful startups to ascertain the management techniques that disproportionately led to success. Together, we brainstormed, and ultimately implemented, many of these management reforms in a number of pilot projects and realized many of the same benefits in the public sector.

An important starting point is to avoid the “big bang” moment, which, unfortunately, we witnessed in October 2013 with the disastrous launch of Rather, a “lean startup” would treat the new product or service as an experiment; it would identify where there are assumptions in need of testing rather than facts on which to build a service at scale; as such, it would design various methods to test those assumptions resulting in the development of what Ries calls, “minimum viable products.”

This way, failure can be tolerated. Feedback can inform new versions of the product or service and the cycle can continuously repeat. A “lean government startup” scopes the assignment in bite-size chunks, launches in often 90 or 120-days with a service that directly impacts constituents, learns from that experience and gets better in many subsequent versions.

Thankfully, in the wake of the challenges, President Obama has built this iterative, agile approach to government service delivery into the DNA of the new U.S. Digital Services arm which will partner with agencies to put these ideas into practice at scale.”

Virginia Gentleman: You mention Sam Pitroda in your book. Describe how he inspired you?

Aneesh Chopra: “We had a personal connection born out of his attending the same college as my father in India. More directly, he was our primary inspiration for organizing a 1997 Washington, DC conference to commemorate India’s 50th anniversary of Independence. He served as our keynote and regaled the 300+ assembled with an hour-long dinner lecture that compelled us to our feet for a near-eternity.

He is an American entrepreneur who was born in India with humble beginnings but incredible engineering talent. His professional success – a startup, patents, financial success – happened early enough in his life that he was able to launch a second act translating that entrepreneurial and engineering success catalyzing India’s telecom sector and delivering accessible phone service to every village at a fraction of the cost it would normally take had he accepted the predominant technical approaches understood in the West.

My biggest takeaway from his impressive story? That there is always an innovative path to achieve what otherwise might appear to be an intractable problem. An Innovative State exploits the innovative path as the first approach to problem solving.”

Virginia Gentleman: You mentioned the reward system in the march to progress. That is when the government offers cash prizes to incentives accomplishment of a goal. Could you relay a couple stories where that has worked well?

Aneesh Chopra: “Our nation of 320+ million Americans has boundless talent, but we have erected substantial barriers to tap it when looking to solve government problems. Formal government procurement processes require such specialized knowledge that it effectively shuns “non-traditional” problem solvers from even participating. As a result, we lose out on finding what might otherwise be the breakthrough we need.

Prizes as a method for rewarding outcomes or results, rather than procurement which often pays for the best plan on paper that might never work, is a rather old idea. An early example of the prize model is the British government’s Longitude Prize to address the vexing issue of determining longitude at sea. Failure to do so cost over a thousand lives in Scilly and the more traditional experts the country could tap to solve the problem couldn’t figure it out, including Sir Isaac Newton as it turned out.

By opening up opportunities for anyone to compete for the 20,000-pound prize (~$3M in today’s currency), a watchmaker named Harrison stepped up, eventually designing the chronometer.

In the more recent past, the X-prize foundation has partnered with the federal government to deliver dramatically more energy efficient cars (100MPGe with a 200+ mile range) and a doubling in the rate of oil spill cleanup. In both cases, the private sector (mostly philanthropic) sponsored the prize purse while the government offered technical assistance. The former inspired a Virginian, Oliver Kuttner, to apply his racing team insights on the importance of weight to fuel efficiency to win the $5M prize without designing an electric engine (his reward has inspired his startup to bring lightweight, energy efficient cars to the mainstream); the latter saw half-a-dozen teams exceed what vendors in the oil spill cleanup business said was a virtual impossibility (the last major innovations in that field came about in the wake of the Exxon Valdez accident), including one that was led by a tattoo artist from Las Vegas. The winning team, ironically, came from the industry, not by meeting the doubling goal, but tripling it – a far cry from what their peers felt was even possible prior to the competition.”

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