Obama Makes Surprise Pick for Federal CTO

President Obama today announced his choice for the nation’s first chief technology officer, bringing a months-long guessing game to an end with a pick that virtually no one saw coming.

Aneesh Chopra, Virginia’s Secretary of Technology, landed the job. In his weekly Internet and radio address, Obama said the new position aims to “promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities — from creating jobs and reducing healthcare costs to keeping our nation secure.”

Obama said that Chopra will work closely with White House CIO Vivek Kundra, who oversees the government’s technology budget and internal IT policies.

Both positions are creations of the Obama administration, and stand as further evidence of the importance the president places on technology. After running an impressively tech-savvy campaign, Obama has pledged to use the Web to make more government information easily accessible to the public.

“The goal is to give all Americans a voice in their government and ensure that they know exactly how we’re spending their money — and can hold us accountable for the results,” Obama said.

Of course, the idea of a fully open, transparent e-government is often at odds with the bureaucratic realities of Washington, where legacy systems, arcane reporting structures and security issues have come as a culture shock to Obama staffers who joined the administration from the campaign.

Chopra, who previously served as managing director of the hospital consulting Advisory Board Company, is a largely unknown figure in Silicon Valley. Obama was widely expected to pick a top gun in the industry, with figures like Google’s Eric Schmidt and Vint Cerf, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior topping many people’s shortlists.

In his four years heading Virginia’s technology efforts, Chopra worked extensively on health IT issues, which Obama has repeatedly said ranks as a high priority for his administration.

Chopra also worked to craft public-private partnerships to bring technical expertise from firms like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) inside the walls of government.

Under Chopra’s direction, Virginia was one of the first states to partner with Google to implement its site-map protocols across the Web sites of the state’s roughly 90 agencies.

At a Washington policy conference in January, Chopra described the challenges of trying to make government data more accessible to the public — in essence doing on a state level what Obama has said he would like to see happen across the federal government.

“Open government first and foremost begins with an open and more modern IT infrastructure,” he said. “We have all this data, we just can’t mine it, because the information is siloed.”

Chopra holds a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard and a bachelor’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins.

In an address themed around government efficiency and accountability, Obama this morning also named Jeffrey Zients as the government’s chief performance officer, another position created by the administration. Obama had previously tapped Nancy Killefer for the job, also nominating her as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, only to see her withdraw her name from consideration after it became known that she had failed to pay unemployment taxes for household help at her D.C. home.

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