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Analytics Magazine

Innovative State: Can government drive information innovation?

September/October 2014

The first U.S. chief technology officer claims analytics holds great promise for promoting public-private information technology partnerships

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By Doug Samuelson

Can government be both smaller and better? Can analytics show the way?

Aneesh Chopra, the first chief technology officer of the United States, thinks so.

In a new book (“Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government”) [1], he argues that public-private partnership initiatives, utilizing new information technology, have already had large impacts in agencies ranging from the Veterans Administration to Health and Human Services and from Education to Energy. He cites numerous examples of successes, not confined to his own time in office, advancing these initiatives, although the period 2009-2012, when he was in office, he knows best and discusses in the most detail. He recounts the effort to improve appointment scheduling for veterans’ health and many federal-state cooperative efforts to update school curricula and involve parents in the process. And, of course, he claims considerable success for various aspects of the new health care system.

These ideas did not originate with Chopra or with the Obama administration. Chopra traces many of the initiatives to the work of a group that began meeting in the late 1980s, as a small number of well-placed individuals from across the political spectrum began meeting informally to formulate ways to make government both more efficient and more effective. James Pinkerton, a member of the group, wrote a book, “What Comes Next” [1995], that summarized the group’s approach. Pinkerton identified five general impediments to implementing innovation:

1. Parkinson’s Law: Work tends to expand to fill the time and resources available, as organizations keep finding justifications for more resources even when their area of responsibility is shrinking. Hence workforces grow even when the organizations’ responsibilities do not. (Parkinson also noted that one reason for this is that people in a hierarchy seek to multiply subordinates, not potential rivals.)

2. The Peter Principle: People keep advancing until they attain positions they cannot fill competently and then stick there, neither improving nor getting removed.

3. Oligarchism: Bureaucracies tend to make self-preservation the overriding priority, engendering stiff resistance to any attempts to streamline.

4. Olsonism: As renowned economist Mancur Olson observed, decision-making is often inordinately influenced by ferociously determined interest groups insisting on certain relatively small policies and resource allocations of great benefit to them.

5. Information Infarction: Bureaucratic decision-making fails because no one in the bureaucracy can know all the relevant information. In a top-down, hierarchical structure, there is little incentive for people on the front line to present information that threatens the status quo. When these people do learn new, relevant information and pass it upward, the time it takes for the information to travel up the chain, be considered and generate directions is often too long to generate meaningful, timely benefits.

While acknowledging the importance of these aspects of bureaucracy, Chopra nevertheless insists that the information technology revolution that began in the late 1990s has created the conditions for a new structure to break through the impediments. He built on his own background, first his education at The Johns Hopkins University and the Kennedy School of Government (Harvard), then as an entrepreneur and later as chief technology officer of the Commonwealth of Virginia in the Tim Kaine administration (2006-2010) to make the case (with a strong endorsement from Governor Kaine) to newly elected President Obama for how a national chief technology officer could help the country.

He cites the “open innovation” concepts of Henry Chesbrough, professor of business administration at the University of California, Berkeley, as the moving force behind much of the high-tech innovation of private businesses in the 1990s. Chesbrough emphasized “giving more information to more people sooner” as the key idea. Applied to government, this means using government “to liberate or harness the energies of the private sector.” This approach involves four tool sets:

1. Open data: enabling the public to access more government digital data, not only for transparency but also, more important, so that the information can be incorporated in new products or services.

2. Impatient convening: Government’s inviting the private sector to work collaboratively on standards that lower barriers to entry and foster competition.

3. Challenges and prizes: Widely inviting proposals to solve a particular problem, outside the cumbersome and often wasteful government procurement processes.

4. Attracting talent: Recruiting entrepreneurs into the government to manage the preceding three tool sets to focus on actual accomplishments and stimulate breakthrough results in a tight time frame.

In his book, Chopra cites a number of examples of apparent successful and consequential implementation, including Department of Health and Human Services initiatives to make health data more widely available and useful; a San Francisco Bay Area project to make zoning information and requirements more readily available to prospective commercial tenants; a publicly available website to track and display legislative proposals in Virginia online; and the movement of the Federal Register, the official record of activities and proposed actions throughout the federal government, to a readily accessible and indexed public website.

In recent comments about what he learned on his book tour, he says, “On my journey thus far, including stops on the ‘Daily Show’ and ‘Morning Joe,’ I’ve confronted a more pessimistic view that the hyper-partisanship in Washington is standing in the way of any meaningful progress. Perhaps my most memorable exchange took place at an event organized by my dear friend and convener-in-chief, Coach Kathy Kemper, on the growing interest in the ‘Internet of Things.’

“Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer expressed some skepticism as to our nation’s ability to fully harness the power of information technology, citing a paper he co-authored in the 1970s on ‘time of use’ pricing models that were expected to dramatically accelerate energy efficiency, but fell short, in part on the failure of our governance system. He mused of a new ‘call to action’ on elevating civics education. He asked why we couldn’t harness these technologies to cull together a 21st century civics curriculum to include a mini-lecture by President Obama on the original Magna Carta, opening up the treasure trove of artifacts held at the U.S. Constitution Center and across our network of libraries, among other ideas.”

Chopra continues: “I responded with three points: First, that part of the problem on realizing the value of time-of-use pricing was an information gap between data held by the utilities on energy utilization (and the regulators on the specific rate plans) and the creativity of entrepreneurs competing on how to best present that data for action by consumers. I shared an example from the book on Green Button (www.greenbuttondata.org), a voluntarily-designed data standard adopted at first by three of California’s largest utilities to open up machine-readable access to energy usage data by consumers (and through Green Button Connect, their trusted third parties). Within a week of Green Button’s launch, an entrepreneur in New York City built ‘Watt Quiz,’ a game that pulled in rate and usage data to inform consumers on the best rate plan that would save them money without impacting their current utilization patterns (true low hanging fruit).

“Second,” he went on, “I spoke of the governance model that has enabled this voluntary standard to scale. Rather than a single institution declaring such a policy be implemented – with the associated costs of likely a bloated IT acquisition – we pursued a version of former President Herbert Hoover’s vision of an ‘Associative State’ that emphasized government’s role as ‘convener’ rather than regulator, or direct investor. One phone call from me to PG&E’s CIO, Karen Austin, kicked off a series of voluntary collaborations that have since resulted in commitments by utilities serving 60 million households (over 100 million people) to adopt the Green Button data standard.

“Third,” he concluded, “I highlighted our work with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the ‘Open Education Data Initiative’ to flip the model of top-down curriculum development (whether for civics or other topics) to a more democratizing model harnessing a new ‘Learning Registry’ standard that empowers teachers and stakeholders to ‘tag’ any learning object on the Internet, including the ability to share peer ratings and reviews. Anyone can now contribute pieces and parts for a new civics course that can be more rapidly assembled for use by schools, non-profit institutions or parents. All at no charge. Rather than await some centrally designed civics curriculum for all to adopt, we’ve lowered barriers for everyone to deliver world-class civics instruction at a pace that is right for them. How did Justice Breyer respond? He said he would be buying my book.”

Although Chopra’s enthusiasm is infectious and his examples are persuasive, serious issues remain. Long-time readers of OR/MS Today may remember reports of a broad, strongly backed initiative toward a standard electronic patient record in health care and other IT efforts 20 years ago [Samuelson, 1995]. Many knowledgeable people asserted, as we reported, that information problems were most likely the single biggest driver of both high costs and quality problems. Five years later, the National Institute of Medicine announced much the same conclusion. Still, very recent studies indicate that many of the same problems persist [James and Samuelson, 2013].

Similarly, alert readers will note the irony of the disappointing developments, since the book appeared, in one of Chopra’s best examples, the VA scheduling system. Many of the improvements he claims really did take place – but not entirely system-wide. The rollout of the new healthcare system also provides both positive and negative evidence about his proposed approaches. (Much of the difficulty can be traced, he points out, to a single major procurement done “the old way,” resulting in a bad technical solution to one key component.) Substantial analysis remains to be done about how to get the more entrenched, change-resistant components of a large organization to go along with major innovation, or to come up with different improvements of their own.

Chopra admits that he generated many more good ideas than he saw through to completion, leading his wife to call him “the Secretary of Memos.” One is led to suspect that individual leadership and persuasiveness play a larger role, and systems concepts a correspondingly lesser role, than Chopra and analytics professionals would like to admit. This implies that leadership style is one of the important subjects of study. Even more important, how to evaluate what proposed changes are working and how to focus on the real causes of problems is an ongoing challenge that analytics professionals are especially well qualified to address.

Chopra also points out that the current news media culture and climate tends to focus on contentious issues and embarrassing shortcomings, while under-reporting large-scale but relatively slow-moving system changes. Here, too, analytics professionals could be helpful, by digesting meaningful information and presenting it to news outlets in ways they can readily utilize. Chopra’s book and public appearances are an attempt to do this, along with his active participation in electoral politics. (He ran, unsuccessfully, for lieutenant governor of Virginia last year and is currently very active in Senator Mark Warner’s re-election campaign.) In short, he doesn’t have all the answers – but he is definitely raising many of the right questions, and analytics professionals would do well to respond.


Doug Samuelson (samuelsondoug@yahoo.com) is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va., and a senior operations research analyst with Group W, Inc., in Merrifield and Triangle, Va., supporting the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC). He is a longtime member of INFORMS and a contributing editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics.

Notes and References

1. Aneesh Chopra, “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government,” New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014.

2. Brent James and Douglas A. Samuelson, “Change We Can Live With: Building the Data Capabilities and Analytics to Make Critical Improvements in Patient Safety and Wellness,” OR/MS Today, October 2013.

3. James Pinkerton, “What Comes Next: The End of Big Government – and the New Paradigm Ahead,” New York: Hyperion, 1995.

4. Douglas A. Samuelson, “Diagnosing the Real Health Care Villain,” OR/MS Today, February 1995.

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