When Todd Park was asked in 2009 to become the Department of Health and Human Services' first chief technology officer, he wasn’t looking for a government job.
He had already co-founded two successful -- and now publicly traded, though he divested -- health care companies and was finally looking at a life with more time for his family in California. But the job -- all about opening troves of federal health data to the public -- sounded amazing to him, and after a few days of thinking about it, he and his wife saw the opportunity as a national duty.
Park may have thought his term as federal CTO would also be about opening data, but actually his and his family’s initial reluctance to move to Washington may be the more telling aspect of his early days. They were eventually convinced to make some sacrifices for the opportunity to be of service to the country, and Park has since managed to convince throngs of the best technology workers to do the same.
The Obama administration announced Thursday that in his new role working for the White House from Silicon Valley, Park will continue his recruiting efforts and keep policy officials in touch with tech world developments and trends.
Park's Lead Role in HealthCare.gov Fix
Park became the second-ever federal CTO in March 2012. His predecessor, Aneesh Chopra, had been appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama, who was honoring a campaign promise to create the position.
The precise role of the federal CTO was evolving. About six months after he started the job, Park announced the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows -- 18 tech-savvy entrepreneurs selected from about 700 applicants -- who would tackle some of government’s most perplexing problems. Park dubbed them “bad-ass innovators.”
Unexpectedly, in late 2013, Park was brought in to help build the team that would save HealthCare.gov, the Obamacare website that proved essentially unusable when it launched last October. Innovation fellows also joined that team, as did Mikey Dickerson, a Google engineer who was tapped this month to head up the new U.S. Digital Service and who represents the kind of talent the White House hopes Park can continue to attract to government.
When House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaed Park in November 2013 to testify about the then-still-troubled HealthCare.gov website after accusing him in an interview of engaging in “a pattern of interference and false statements,” Democrats came quickly to his defense.
Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Gerry Connolly of Virginia requested unsuccessfully that Issa withdraw the subpoena. “The evidence before our committee demonstrates that Mr. Park is an honest and exemplary public servant, and your unsubstantiated public attacks against his integrity are a deficient basis on which to justify a subpoena against him,” they said.
The subpoena also inspired a few former innovation fellows to create the website LetToddWork.org. “Now, instead of continuing to fix Healthcare.gov (a mess he did not make), Mr. Park has to spend his hours preparing for his testimony,” the site said.
The efforts were unsuccessful, and he was still compelled to testify under rigorous questioning by Issa. But Park managed to use the appearance as an opportunity to detail the progress that had already been made on the health care website.
He has, for the most part, escaped blame for the failed rollout of HealthCare.gov. Park worked on the site directly as HHS’ top technologist when it was in its very preliminary stages. But he had limited involvement in its development, returning only after the rocky launch to clean up the mess.
“As a public servant, Todd’s most high-profile success story is, and will likely remain, his work to fix HealthCare.gov,” Connolly recently told Nextgov. “Yet, with respect to Todd’s legacy as U.S. CTO, my own view is that his leadership in establishing the Presidential Innovation Fellows program may prove to be his most important and lasting initiative.”
Presidential Innovation Fellows: Park’s Real Legacy?
After the HealthCare.gov fiasco, 11 former innovation fellows were among 15 initial employees to form 18F, a digital services division within the General Services Administration that aims to run more like a startup -- fast and lean. 18F currently encompasses the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.
Park frequently is credited for the success of 18F as well as the fellowship program, which benefited both from his known track record and respect in the private sector as well as the status of the White House-based CTO position.
“This isn’t GSA’s fault, because it is what it is,” said one observer who requested anonymity to speak frankly about government. “But look, there’s no kid out there who grows up dreaming of working for GSA. But working for the president of the United States actually sounds cool.”
Indeed, Park surrounded himself with some of the brightest technology thinkers around, including women in key leadership roles in an office that previously had none.
“If you look at the amount of technical talent that the federal government had available to it before Todd Park and today, it’s night and day,” said former innovation Clay Johnson, who is currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Adam Dole, another former fellow who now works at a health care company he co-founded called Better, agreed.
“There is an army of extremely talented people in the federal government that are there because of him and he set that foundation and has now set that as the default expectation for people coming into government," he said.
The sentiment was echoed this week by Obama himself: "I thank Todd for his service as my chief technology officer and look forward to his continuing to help us deploy the best people and ideas from the tech community in service of the American people."
Is the CTO Role Still Relevant?
To the extent his work as CTO has centered on recruitment, it makes sense Park would continue that role from California and the life his wife was never eager to leave in the first place.
“She gave me one final hall pass for this position,” Park told Fast Company in a 2012 interview shortly after he became federal CTO. “But she said, 'You can choose to stay for longer than that, but I will divorce you.' She said it in a way that wasn't hysterical; she wasn't viscerally angry, which made it all the more serious. Like, 'The sun will rise in the morning; it will set in the evening; and if you stay any longer in D.C. than you have to, I will divorce you.’”
Park’s departure leaves a job opening in Washington -- one with unclear requirements. If Chopra, the first federal CTO, had the president’s ear on policy matters, and Park’s role proved more about drawing people, ideas and attitudes from the private sector, it’s anyone’s guess where the next top technologist will take the office.
Obama created the federal CTO position within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy by an executive action on his first day in office. Connolly and others have sought to expand the job’s powers and require it statutorily -- so far, unsuccessfully. Former fellow Johnson wonders if the position is even necessary anymore.
“Do we still need the role of CTO anymore?” he asked. “I’m not sure that we do. I think what we really need to do is hire better CIOs,” he said, referring to chief information officers.
If the top technology job is anything like technology itself, reassessing and taking stock every few years to address changing circumstances and capabilities may just be the federal CTO position's lot.