United States CTO Todd Park brings Silicon Valley wisdom to D.C.
Park gets to put government data to work in a filibuster-free environment. | Photo by Brian Finke
Todd Park, the cofounder of health-care juggernauts Athenahealth and Castlight, had already been CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for nearly three years when, in March, President Obama named him CTO of the United States. With roughly 2.8 million employees and $15.6 trillion in debt, the government is no lean startup. But that hasn't stopped Park from applying bootstrap theory to his job.
FC: Lean startups work in the Valley because there's incentive to stay small and fast, there's competition, and there's pressure from investors. Can that model even apply to the Federal government?
PARK: Absolutely. I mean, look, the government is not a startup obviously. But projects to change government I think are best thought of as startups. I take a lean-startup approach: creating agile, interdisciplinary teams that get the minimum viable product to market as soon as possible. It's my job to be entrepreneur-in-residence, an internal change-agent.
So what projects are you focused on now?
One is the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. We're bringing 15 of the most badass innovators on the planet to come into the government and work on five game-changing projects with the goal of delivering significant results within six months.
Is this The Avengers of tech? Is the ideal to get Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page on one dream team?
Well actually, we're looking for folks who would be the first people you'd want in a startup--the ones who are going to roll up their sleeves and attack problems. Let me describe some of the projects. One project is called MyGov, an effort to rapidly prototype a single, citizen-centric system that Americans can use to interact with the government to access information and resources. Another is creating a streamlined process for the Federal government to be able to more easily source solutions from startups. And we also have an open-data initiative to liberate government data.
Liberate government data?
There's a project that I started at HHS called the Health Data Initiative. The whole idea was to take a page from what the government had done to make weather data and GPS available back in the day. It spawned an enormous number of innovations in the private sector: the Weather Channel, Weather.com, weather insurance. The liberation of GPS in the 1980s spawned everything from Foursquare on your iPhone to position-crop farming to navigation systems.
The HHS has been liberating a rising tide of health-related knowledge and data. So we're doubling down on that model and cloning it in additional sectors. We're launching data initiatives in public safety, energy, education, and for non-profits. The government is basically taking the data already in its vaults, and jiu-jitsuing it into the public domain so entrepreneurs and innovators can turn it into products and jobs.
What products do you imagine this birthing?
Well, for example, in public safety alone, we've got big data on consumer complaints around products and product recalls. What if Internet marketplaces and shopping applications integrate that data into the experience, so you actually have that information as you comparison shop?
You talk about lean startups and big data--jargon very common in the Valley. Are we going to start seeing pivots and chief ninjas in the government too?
[Laughing] Yes! The origin of the Health Data Initiative is actually a pivot. When we were first figuring out how to use the health data, our instinct was to build our own set of tools--experimental prototypes. Then we had this eureka moment: That's not right at all. It's not about the tools we can build; it's about the tools everyone else can build. So we executed a pivot.
The goal seems to be to enable more private sector innovation and to attract innovators from outside government.
Exactly. It's this notion that the government can inject this national resource of data into the economy so private sector innovators can turn it into products and services. We often talk about Joy's Law, from Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy, who said that no matter who you are, you have to remember that most of the smartest people in the world work for somebody else, which is always true.
Especially in the government, I imagine.
It's true for everybody, right? But it's not just about opening up the data--that's not going to do much in itself. At the HHS, we learned there was a whole bunch of data already made available to the public. But it was in books! Or on static websites and in PDFs! So a big part of this is converting the data so it's usable by third-party developers.
We also found that about 95% of entrepreneurs didn't even know what we were doing! So we've been doing more outreach: TED-like meet-ups, hackathons, and what we call data-paloozas. The government is embracing the whole idea of open innovation--to empower the creativity of the private sector, and to get a lot more done, at much lower costs, a lot faster than if government tried to do everything itself.
What's your day to day like? Do you start your morning with tech blogs?
About 80% of time is spent driving these projects I just described, functioning as sort of a virtual CEO or chairman of the board. The other 20% of my time is spent being a senior advisor on various issues that relate to technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation.
And yes, I read tech blogs! On my iPhone Pulse app, I regularly sample TechCrunch, GigaOm, Fast Company, Wired, and more general news publications like The Journal and the Times.
Do you work closely with President Obama?
I've put together my agenda for him to review, and he's thrilled with it. Actually, and I mean this as the highest compliment I can pay, his geek quotient is very high.
I remember being in a meeting with him where he quoted from a PCAST report. I don't know if you know what PCAST is--it's the Presidential Council Advisory of Science and Technology--it is a high-powered group of incredibly smart scientists and technologists who produce these really thick reports. And I'm in a meeting with the president, and he says, 'Yeah, on page 53 of that PCAST report.' [Laughing] People swiveled and said, 'What? You read page 53 of a PCAST report?' He loves this stuff.
Is part of your job now to assist the Obama campaign?
No, that is not part of my job.
Is technology a partisan pursuit? Will people ever equate big data with big government?
No, I don't think so. There's a ton of bipartisan enthusiasm for the use of data and technology to make government more efficient, more open, and more transparent.
If Mitt Romney were to win the election, would you continue with his administration?
I'm an appointee of President Obama.
But if it were an option, would you continue under his administration?
Well let me put it this way. I've been in D.C. for about two and a half years, which is much longer than my wife thought we'd be here. She gave me one final hall pass for this position, 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.'
Do you find yourself being lobbied at all?
No. It's important to know that I don't have any formal budget. I don't have any regulatory authority. I don't control any grants. I don't control any contracts.
And I love it. It's the perfect position for a change agent: You have the freedom to maneuver, to assemble teams and get things done.
Is the Beltway much different than the Valley?
Let me tell you this story. We were working on a health code-athon last February with Georgetown, and Georgetown wanted to kick it off at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday. I was terrified. I remember thinking, 'This isn't Silicon Valley. Who is going to show up to Georgetown at 9:30 in the morning on a Saturday for a health-data hackathon?'
But 130 people showed up! I don't know how they heard about it! You might as well have been in the Valley. So there's actually a lot of tech innovation happening in the D.C. area.
But it is hard to think about D.C. being innovative. There's such gridlock in Congress and so much inefficiency in government. I mean, have you ever been to a post office? It doesn't exactly scream Silicon Valley. I don't think it's too surprising many are cynical about Washington. How innovative can it truly be or become?
Look, I had a spectacular time being a private sector entrepreneur. But honestly, the most entrepreneurial experience I've ever had is working with the U.S. Federal government. I found that many of the most talented innovators work for the U.S. Federal government. You know, whenever I've had an idea here, the first thing I do is find the people in government who already had that idea a long time ago. I recruit them into a virtual lean-startup team, and say, 'Look, I'll be your virtual CEO, and block down field for you--provide you with air cover to do what you've always wanted to do.'
In my life as a private-sector entrepreneur, I realized, as an empirical fact based on data, that there was one characteristic that tended to differentiate the best entrepreneurs from the ones who were merely good: The best folks weren't in it for the stock options. They weren't in it for the write up in Forbes. They were in it because they just couldn't stand the idea of the world not having what they were building. That level of mission orientation is what powers you through the broken bones, the moments of despair, the darkness that every entrepreneurial journey has.
And, it turns out, in the Federal government, the innovators aren't here for the stock options.
[Laughing] Shocking! They're here because they want to make a difference. So if you can just find the talented innovators in government and unleash their mojo, they can do incredible things.
You know, someday in the year 2040, the U.S. CTO is going to attend TechCrunch Disrupt to recruit the next generation of public servants. And the people there are going to say, 'Well of course the government is here. That's not surprising at all.'
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company.
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