Where is Biden’s chief technology officer? Indian-American Aneesh Chopra was first CTO in Obama administration

Aneesh Chopra, President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer. Photo: Twitter @aneeshchopra

Three months into Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009, he was lauded for naming the nation’s first chief technology officer (Indian American Aneesh Chopra), a position his campaign pledged to create to ensure the U.S. government had “the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century.”

The feat was one of the reasons the tech news outlet Engadget in 2017 named Obama “the most tech-savvy president,” crediting the position’s creation with bringing “a Silicon Valley mind-set to the federal government” and helping to “modernize the executive branch.”

But more than 20 months into Joe Biden’s presidency, he’s yet to appoint a U.S. CTO nominee, leaving vacant a key post that helps steer the administration’s tech policy.

Last December, Principal Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer Alexander Macgillivray announced the administration was searching for candidates for the top spot. But the White House has yet to provide any significant update on the search.

The result, according to tech industry leaders and former federal officials, is that the administration is left without a point person to lead key artificial intelligence and data initiatives, and is lacking a unified voice to articulate the benefits of technology in government.

“It’s frankly very disappointing. … It shouldn’t have taken this long, ” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank that receives funding from tech companies including Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Atkinson, who served on a policy committee for Biden’s presidential campaign, said advisers presented Biden’s team with numerous candidates for the role. He argued the failure to pick from a broad pool of talent shows a lack of urgency.

“It’s not hard to get a CTO. It really isn’t,” he said. “The challenge is they just haven’t made it a priority. They could easily have done this a year and a half ago if they wanted to.”

Historically, the U.S. CTO has helped spearhead initiatives to boost tech innovation in the private sector, harness data and other tools for government use across agencies, and expand technical expertise in the federal ranks, in addition to advising on policy issues.

While Biden has yet to select an appointee for the top role, he did tap Macgillivray to serve as principal deputy in addition to two other deputies, Denice Ross and Lynne Parker. Ross also serves as U.S. chief data scientist. Parker, a Trump appointee, left her post this year.

Biden also elevated the role of director for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, where the U.S. CTO position is housed, to Cabinet-level status for the first time. But the post was vacant for months after former OSTP director Eric Lander resigned over a bullying scandal and was only formally refilled recently.

“Under Dr. Arati Prabhakar’s leadership, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is successfully delivering on President Biden’s mission developing ground-breaking new policies designed to benefit the health and welfare of everyone in America,” White House spokesperson Olivia Dalton said in a statement.

Dalton added, “OSTP is fortunate to have a strong Principal Deputy CTO as we complete the personnel process for a permanent official.”

Former president Donald Trump took even longer to fill the post, but Biden could still outpace him and set a record delay.

In March 2019, more than two years into his presidency, Trump tapped Michael Kratsios to serve as the U.S. CTO, elevating him from his role as deputy. Kratsios, who served as chief of staff at the investment firm of Trump-backer Peter Thiel, was confirmed in August of that year.

Less than a year later in July 2020, Kratsios was designated to also serve as acting undersecretary for defense for research and engineering, an unusual dual role that saw him remain U.S. CTO while taking on additional duties for the Department of Defense.

The result is that the U.S. CTO post has been vacant for a majority of the time since Obama left office, and for part of that time, the CTO has split duties elsewhere.

Three officials held the U.S. CTO title under Obama: Aneesh Chopra, who had served as secretary of technology under Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine; Todd Park, who had held the CTO role for the Department of Health and Human Services; and Megan Smith, a former Google executive.

“I think it was an incredibly important and symbolically important role in the Obama administration, signifying that he wanted to harness technology in positive ways and also have nuanced discussions,” said Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a center-left trade group that receives funding from major tech companies.

Once seen as a role that created connective tissue between the Bay and the Beltway, Atkinson argued the CTO vacancy under Biden is yet another indication of the thawing of relationships between Silicon Valley leaders and some officials in Washington.

“With the ‘techlash,’ particularly among progressives where they look at technology as more of a problem than a solution … I think the administration is like, ‘Why push this?'” he said.



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