OSTP’s Vein Innovates Innovation Itself
Chris Vein works for two prominent Obama administration officials who are always in the limelight. Consequently Vein doesn’t get a lot of publicity. If you do a search on his name, the “news” results shows very little.
And that’s all fine with Vein, the deputy Chief Technology Officer. He reports to the soon-departing CTO Aneesh Chopra and also to John Holdren, the senior advisor to the president for Science and Technology. Both have been highly visible – and in Holdren’s case, controversial – appointees.
“I don’t search out publicity,” Vein said. “I think it’s easier to get more done with people if you’re not in it to get your name out. My style is to be in the background.” The exception was Vein’s tenure as CIO of San Francisco, the job he held before joining the administration. He said, in that job, publicity sought him. In fact, in this 2007 video he refers to himself as the accidental CIO. The video conveys what you sense about Vein when talking to him, that his outer manner – relaxed, low-key and informal – somewhat masks an inner intensity.
(Vein is not the only person from the administration of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, now the lieutenant governor of California. See this FedInsider profile of Nani Coloretti.)
Accidental or not, Vein’s penchant for innovation evident now in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) came into play then. He established a public-private partnership to bring WiFi to public spaces. He improved web-deployed services to citizens. He devised a program called Tech Connect with the goal of making sure every citizen in San Francisco would have broadband access to the Internet. He pushed so-called green computing, with double-sided printing and acquisition of sustainable products. Even server and data center consolidation were part of the agenda.
At the White House, Vein has a broad portfolio but he concentrates on three areas. Two are related. The first of these is the National Action Plan for Open Government which was extended to become an international effort. Vein represents the U.S., which has donated source code for www.data.gov.
“We are trying to leverage that project,” Vein said, “getting other governments to put their data on the same platform. We’re trying to remove barriers to that.”
Secondly, Vein is working to insure that federal agencies complete their own plans under the Open Government Directive, as the administration works on version 2 of the initiative.
And third: “I work with state and local government and remove differences and silos among branches of government,” Vein said. That means getting cities and states to put their data sets on data.gov. But more than making data available – which in some sense agencies have always done – the open government efforts also encourage development of applications, public engagement platforms such as Ideascale, and continuous improvement of web sites and the services they deliver.
You can get a simplified view via the open government dashboard, which includes links to each agency’s openness plan.
For Vein, the underlying theme for his work is innovation. He defines that as “a process of improving, adapting or developing products, systems or services to deliver a better result or more value to users.” He credits that definition to the Ideo group, and adds, “Innovation has lots of definitions, but most are missing something.”
Vein said he doesn’t necessarily look at innovation from a technology standpoint. “I’m one of the last remaining skilled generalists,” he quipped. But, he said, “We are finally able to achieve what technology has promised for so long. Technology has become ubiquitous and cheap. The challenges we face are based not on getting more money.”
Data.gov itself, the use of prizes and challenges, and use of rapid and agile development techniques have comprised an innovating way of approaching innovation. They’ve brought different constituencies together in, for example, health care. “Given the nature of competing interests and the fact that most people want to participate, we’ve used challenges and prizes. Hundreds of applications have been developed,” Vein said. “Walgreens and Aetna have built on ideas, scaled them in ways the government couldn’t.” Vein calls the government’s efforts in these types of collaborations that of an “urgent convener.”
Vein also works with agencies in the redesign of their web sites, both in terms of appearance but more importantly in functionality and how they are organized. He cites a new one, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an example of a site developed with users in mind. Right now the CFPB is trying to get the mortgage industry to simplify all of the paperwork. It is running side-by-side versions of model disclosure forms and asking site visitors to comment on each one.
Vein is no newcomer to government, although he also had substantial jobs in the private sector. He joined the White House staff as a non-political employee during the Reagan administration and into the first year of the Clinton administration. He was a financial officer supporting the White House appropriation, and then a non-political senior advisor for internal administration and financial policy. His private sector stints include jobs at the American Psychological Association and federal contractor SAIC. He worked for San Francisco as deputy director and chief administrative officer before becoming senior advisor to and then CIO for Newsom.
To chill, Vein returns to his permanent home in the Sonoma Valley area of California where he is an avid cook.