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Tech observers praise Obama's top IT choice

The appointment of Aneesh Chopra as the government's first chief technology officer signals that the administration is serious about updating the nation's technology infrastructure, said former federal officials, industry leaders and open government advocates.

As CTO, Chopra will be an assistant to President Obama, with direct access to him. Chopra also will serve as associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, if confirmed by the Senate for that position, administration officials said on Monday.

Until Obama tapped Chopra on April 18, the technology industry feared the president had reneged on the White House-level position he had promised during the transition. Months went by without an appointment, the administration announced the CTO would work within OSTP, and reports surfaced that heavy hitters such as Google Inc.'s CEO Eric Schmidt had turned down the job.

But with the president's ear -- Chopra, a well-respected technology secretary for the commonwealth of Virginia -- will carry the backing of the White House when conferring with agency officials. The administration's tech team also includes Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, Washington's former chief technology officer; New Media Director Macon Phillips, who helped manage Obama's online presidential campaign; and Citizen Participation Director Katie Stanton, a veteran of Google.

At the outset, confusion over jurisdictions could crop up with so many high-level technology officials, policy analysts said.

"There is a lot of overlapping turf here between these operations, but you need a lot of people advocating internally and externally," said Andrew Plemmons Pratt, managing editor of ScienceProgress.org, an online publication from the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

White House officials described the CTO and CIO positions as complementary. The CTO role involves contemplating how advanced technologies can improve the economy and quality of life, said Rick Weiss, senior science and technology policy analyst at OSTP. Examples include examining how technology can foster private sector innovation, reduce health care costs and transform teaching. Kundra will be more focused on intergovernmental uses of technologies to improve federal operations and public outreach.

Chopra's expertise is in health information technology, an area critical to the success of Obama's health care reform. In fact, the one-time managing director of the Advisory Board Co., a Washington-based health care consulting firm, was interested in the CTO position at the Health and Human Services Department, sources said.

As the White House's top technology official, Chopra will oversee the rollout of tech projects funded under the stimulus, including nationwide health IT systems, more efficient electrical grids and expanded high-speed Internet access in rural and underserved areas.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said Chopra "is not a partisan individual" and, as such, will have the power to shape a far-reaching technology strategy.

"I think this elevates the position within the administration, the fact that they've gone to him for this appointment," said Davis, now a director at Deloitte's Federal Government Services. "We were worried about what would this chief technologist do. [Would it] be like a chief scientist?"

While serving in the Virginia government, Chopra lured IT businesses to the area and saved taxpayers' money by streamlining government systems, according to Davis, who pushed to modernize federal information security, tech contracting and e-government when he was chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. "We're lucky to get people like that and keep them in government," he added.

The IT trade group CompTIA "has long stressed the importance of public-private partnerships in meeting . . . critical challenges," such as designing a more efficient health care system, promoting alternative energies, strengthening homeland security and creating millions of new jobs, said CompTIA President and CEO Todd Thibodeaux in a statement. "Mr. Chopra's record as Virginia's secretary of technology clearly shows that he too sees the IT private sector as a key component in the country's long-term economic development."

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said of Chopra: "Clearly he is a strong choice, with a solid track record on using technology to make government information more transparent."

But Chopra and the other White House tech officials will have to contend with outdated IT systems during the next year, say some former government officials.

"The thing that's the real challenge for this group, though, is you have a bunch of legacy systems. It's costing [a lot] to keep things working," said Robert Otto, a former CTO and CIO at the U.S. Postal Service.

While the administration has proposed terminating certain federal IT programs to curb costs, "it isn't going to save money overnight," said Otto, now an executive vice president at Agilex Technologies Inc. "Those savings won't happen in calendar 2009."

The government will have to rely on existing IT systems until agencies develop standardized systems that can talk to each other, according to Otto. "We don't even have data standards across the federal agencies. The way they code your name in one federal agency may be totally different than the way they code that name in a different federal agency," he said.

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