Outgoing CTO ruffles some feathers praising citizen innovators

An event to mark federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra's last day in office Wednesday briefly turned into a debate about the nature of government innovation.

Chopra spent most of what amounted to a farewell address at the Center for American Progress praising citizens who had launched new businesses or products with mashed up federal data, as well as those who had competed in government-sponsored competitions to build new applications related to health and the environment.

"Data liberation -- open data -- though it seems technical and wonky to many, the point of it is that it is an active ingredient in the jobs and industries of the future," Chopra said. "Our apps economy . . . consumes data. That's the fuel that drives those jobs. And we've got lots of it in every federal agency and we're releasing it."

At the end of the panel discussion, a questioner lashed out at Chopra, suggesting citizen innovations were a poor replacement for the innovations of federal employees who are being stifled by bureaucracy and an overreliance on contractors.

"You've really denigrated, on some level, federal service by suggesting that somehow federal workers who are committed to the government aren't creative," said the questioner, who identified himself as Eddie Eitches, head of the Housing and Urban Development Department headquarters local of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"The real problem is that we aren't able to unleash our creativity," Eitches said.

Chopra responded that his initiatives in office were aimed at using the wisdom of crowds and promoting bottom-up developments within government as well as outside it, such as through employee competitions to produce the best policy reform at an agency. An earlier part of his speech focused on attracting people from the private sector to serve brief periods in government as "entrepreneurs in residence."

The Center for American Progress event was focused around the launch of a new Open Innovator's Toolkit, effectively a list of links to open government and accessibility tools launched during Chopra's term.

The toolkit includes links to government data sets at Data.gov and government-funded competitions, and links to memos and executive orders promoting more efficient government practices.

Chopra is rumored to be planning a run for lieutenant governor of Virginia, where he was formerly secretary of technology.

He previously was a managing director for the health care consultancy Advisory Board Co., which was founded by David Bradley, who owns Atlantic Media Co., publisher of Nextgov.