Innovative State, 2014, by Aneesh Chopra; used with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Innovative State, 2014, by Aneesh Chopra; used with permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

In his new book, “Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government,” Aneesh Chopra makes the case for using technology to transform government in the United States. Weary of the old liberal-conservative debate of more government/less government, Chopra espouses effective government. In this book, he comes across as conservative in his frank acknowledgment that government often falls short in the execution of its goals. But the former Virginia Secretary of Technology and former Chief Technology Office for the Obama administration remains steadfastly liberal in his conviction that government can be a force for good.

While I hew to the view that less is more when it comes to government, I concede that certain core functions in American society are best provided by government. I believe that what government chooses to do, it should do well. And, like Chopra, I believe that technology can play a major role in improving government performance. That’s why I’m excited to make available to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion Chapter 3 of his book, which describes his experience as Secretary of Technology during the Kaine administration. I expect that readers will be impressed by Chopra’s approach as a pragmatic problem solver and encouraged how often, away from the spotlight, Virginia politicians are willing to cooperate on a non-partisan basis to get things done.

After resigning his job as CTO for the federal government (you’ll have to buy the book to find out what he did in that post), Chopra made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party nomination as Lieutenant Governor. But he remains active in Virginia, as co-founder of Hunch Analytics, based in Rosslyn, which applies Big Data and Predictive Analytics to solve problems in education, energy and health care, and working behind the scenes with Governor Terry McAuliffe on workforce development and veterans affairs. I expect we’ll be hearing more from Chopra who, at 42, has a long career ahead of him. — JAB

Aneesh Chopra

Chapter 3
The Virginia Model

Back in 1999, the Virginia legislature was seeking to make someone accountable for nurturing entirely new industries throughout the state, while making sure the government’s internal use of information technology was effective and efficient. Virginia became the first state in the nation to create a cabinet position for a Secretary of Technology. Three men would fill that role over the next six years, and their work over that time contributed to Governing magazine’s 2005 selection of Virginia as the “Best Managed State.”

In 2006, Tim Kaine, the successor to outgoing Governor Mark Warner, chose me to the the fourth Secretary of Technology. He had a different spin on the position, one in tune with the times. By 2006, the Internet had transformed the way consumers accessed information and conducted commerce. yet, though it had improved some services such as e-filing tax returns and renewing professional licenses, it had not meaningfully transformed the relationship between citizens and their government. Kaine assigned me to prioritize the improvement of that interface. I realized that one of the most important things government can do is remove restrictions that exist for really no good reason. On a visit to Google, for example, I learned two things: one, most people get to government websites through search engines, not by typing in their URLs, or bookmarking them; and second, government, perhaps unintentionally, made it difficult for search engines to index information that the public had the right to know. Within 90 days, we initiated a no-cost collaboration to simplify and standardize the interface between search engines and government websites, making it easier for the public to find what they need. We formed a coalition of four states, two led by Republican governors (Utah, California) and two by Democratic ones (Arizona, Virginia), whereby Google, Yahoo and agreed on a standard sitemap protocol that the states agreed to adopt. Those states then assigned their webmasters to implement the new protocol, a task that took about an hour per site. By the launch in April 2007, Virginia had tagged about 80,000 of our own web pages (URLs) for addition to the participating search engines. In the first year of the initiatives, we observed a 40 percent spike in site visitors, at no cost other than the modest incremental staff effort.

One of the promising aspects of that initiative was its bipartisan backing. Before my term even started, and as it progressed, I made a point to reach out to members of the Republican-led legislature. Through those conversations, I became convinced that many in both parties viewed technology, data, and innovation initiatives from a more pragmatic prism, beyond the usual, inflexible left-right division. That was evident when those Republicans invited me, a Democrat, to partner as a nonvoting participant on the Joint Committee of Technology and Science (JCOTS), which organized small working groups that included members of the executive and legislative branches, as well as concerned citizens. More than a dozen bills endorsed by JCOTS passed through the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support and were signed into law by Governor Kaine, including Republican-sponsored legislation to expand rural broadband access, adopt health IT standards, and permit school boards to purchase open source education resources.

Democrats, while a minority in the legislature, also attempted to put their signature on the smarter government movement, with the endorsement of the executive branch. Consider the way Business One Stop came together. Governor Kaine, wanting to buoy the state’s reputation as business friendly, sought to offer every Virginia entrepreneur a single destination to complete all the forms required to start a new enterprise — a task that otherwise might involved as many as seven state agencies, such as the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Department of Taxation, and the Virginia Employment Commission. Governor Kaine, inspired by South Carolina’s presentation at a National Governors Association meeting, gave me the assignment of creating something similar.

Upon digging in, our team estimated that implementing the South Carolina model — which not only improved the user experience but also connected with existing systems within each impacted agency — would require an investment of roughly $7 million. That estimate far exceeded our available funds. So I improvised… Continue reading.

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4 responses to “Innovative Virginia”

  1. It’s sort of a mixed bag with govt websites in my view.

    For instance, DMV does provide SOME online services and I’ve found things like renewing registrations easier.

    VDOT does a decent job with show SOME of the 6yr plan information (but not all and has yet to incorporate maps for the projects.

    But DEQ used to be a place where I could search for permitted facilities – for instance sewage treatment plants but now that data is submerged and you actually have to get in touch with someone to get it.

    Schools are among the worst offenders. What they have demonstrated is that you can have a website with lots of information on it and even the entire budget – but try to find out – for instance, what the enrollment vs capacity is of individual schools or how much the school system spends on Head Start or Advanced Placement or Title 1 or career tech programs.

    where some govt agencies are heading are providing the website and saturating it with data that is almost irrelevant – like detailing department goals and accomplishments to take up 1/3 of a budget document without telling you have much that department actually has in personnel and how much it spends – as a department.

    and for some things, like cities – and organizations – I go to wiki – because their websites are primarily PR efforts that lack really basic information. For instance, if you want to find out the density or median income of a city – you go to wiki – not the city website.

    If you want to find things like what the nitrogen and phosphorous levels are of the various rivers in Virginia – forget it. No one, not DEQ, not the Chesapeake Bay folks – no one – provides that data – even as we are being told that jurisdictions across Virginia will have to spend billions of dollars to clean up – you can’t find out – for where you live what the current levels of nutrients are – nor what the DEQ thresholds are – for that area.

    Government, in general, is not really that keen on providing data and information – if it will cause the public to become more involved.. yes.. that’s the sad truth and so – you’ll see the public having to file FOIA to get info that is already in electronic form and easily provide-able through a web interface – but they get it on paper .. and even then if the govt agency can’t find a way to justify not providing it or providing redacted paper versions.

    The way the public finds out in a lot of cases is that the internet has caused such a deluge of information flow – and search engines that someone with a little staying power can find out some things anyhow.

    Waldo Jaquith, the bright young fella who created Richmond Sunlight (that tracks General Assembly bills) and Virginia Decoded ( which is a re-structured, user-friendly version of the Virginia Code) has detailed the problems he has had to get Virginia government to provide him with access to information so he could in-turn wrap it with a user-friendly interface.

    And try to find out how much money is spent on roads in your local jurisdiction or how much your jurisdiction generated in gas taxes.

    Finally – go the the website of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and read the horror stories of citizens trying to get information.. Even Bacon’s home county of Henrico has used excuses to deny basic real estate assessment info to people :

    The Va Code DOES REQUIRE counties, cities/towns and schools to provide taxing and spending data by standardized categories so some level of comparison is possible – better than some states – and Commonwealth Datapoint allows some drill-down but I’m not sure if it is still operational .

    Technology and the adoption of technology is not the problem in my view. It’s the willful refusal of jurisdictions and schools to provide information unless forced to by law or legislation. Otherwise they just put up slick PR-type websites where one can easily spend hours looking for information they don’t want you to have in the first place. For instance try to find the SOL scores for your own schools on the school district website – usually not provided – and in fact, -the only reason the Va DOE site has them is because the No-child law requires it.

    I’m not a fan of the way that most state agencies beyond JLARC and the State Auditor websites provide information all due respects to Mr. Chopra – it’s not the technology that is the issue.

  2. I’ve wondered how a FOIA version of Wiki-leaks might work. Sorta of a crowd-sourcing FOIA – Central idea.

    The idea would be that anyone who wanted to find out something and had to file a FOIA – he then would also share it with the FOIA-Central site which would become an easily-searchable database that would help others find out what’s been FOIAed successfully (and what failed), and if what was FOIAed was helpful to them but not completely so then they would FOIA and share, and so on and so forth.

    I would think this would be a perfect project for those who say we need to hold government more accountable…

    and seriously – in my view – we’re getting to a really bad place with govt being held accountable any more and it drives a enormous frustration and in turn anti-government sentiment.

  3. I like the DMV web site that purports to tell people how long the wait will be at various DMVs. I had to do some things in person one day. I waited and checked and checked the web site. When the Sterling DMV got down to a predicted 15 minute wait I rushed over. The line was out the door. 90 minutes later I left the building.

    I do like the fact that DMV has automated some things. Anything is better than going to the DMV.

    1. I do you one better. the DMV sent their mobile trailer to our Courthouse one day and I went by thinking it would be a wasted trip but VOILA – there was only one guy ahead of me and they processed a title transfer for me – doing it online and processed my credit card online and I was out of there in less than 15 minutes. (called DMV2GO).

      but the local DMV is a giant sitting room where you wait with your number clutched in your hand watching the numbers on the screen like you’re hoping to win the lottery.

      I understand there are others in other states that are much, much worse.

      there’s another little-known alternative – DMV Select which are contract locations in local stores and post office type locations.. usually just walk in and do your transaction.

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