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State Senate tech guru is taking his gov 2.0 skills elsewhere

Dave Pinter
via Flickr
Andrew Hoppin's work as the state Senate's first ever chief information officer had won him high praise in "open government" circles.

When New York Republicans regained control of the state Senate after last November’s election, a small subset of political observers suspected it meant one thing: The Senate’s first ever Chief Information Officer (CIO) was on his way out of Albany.

Andrew Hoppin - the former rocket scientist turned NASA web guru - was brought on as Senate CIO by a newly empowered Democratic majority in 2009. Hoppin was charged with overhauling a then-clunky nysenate.gov, and making public data more widely accessible.

Some of Hoppin's accomplishments include powering the Senate website with open source software, allowing for online public comment on Senate legislation and even rolling out the country’s first legislative iPhone app.

The Innovation Trail profiled Hoppin (with both radio and television pieces) last summer. So when we saw that he was on his way out of Albany, we thought we’d ask him a few questions.

Characteristically, Hoppin's public farewell took the form of a tweet:

No longer @NYSenate 1/20/11; grateful 2 have had profound #opengov #gov20 leadership opportunity 4 2 yrs, optimistic most of it will remain

We caught up with Hoppin last week, to ask him about his time in Albany, what lies ahead for him and whether the State Senate's “Open Gov” optimism has waned.

Below is a lightly abridged transcript of our conversation with Hoppin about the state of “open government” in the Senate. If you want to hear the entire conversation, audio of the interview is included at the very bottom.


ZS: First of all, I saw your farewell tweet a couple of weeks ago. What are you up to these days?

AH: I have just gotten back from a couple weeks of vacation, and I'm spending a lot of time talking to a lot of folks about what's next. I may work in a consulting capacity or I may work for a government, and there are a couple of other potential avenues that I'm exploring. But they all revolve around helping governments to do the kind of things that we did in the Senate, which is to open [government] up, become more transparent, and in so doing become more efficient by virtue of exposing what people inside an organization may not have realized wasn't being done quite optimally until they really took a look at it, through the forcing factor of having their data exposed to the world.

So, that’s going to be the domain I work in, and the form in which it will take specifically is still an open question, but I'm having a lot of fascinating conversations at all levels, local, state, and federal.

ZS: As CIO your mantra last time we spoke was “transparency, efficiency and participation.” In your two years at the Senate, how do you rate you and your team’s work on those three “Gov 2.0” pillars?

AH: So, let’s take 'em one at a time, although obviously they interrelate.

On transparency, I feel really good about what we did. I think we made the Senate arguably the most transparent legislative body in the country, bar none. And obviously it didn't make it necessarily the most effective legislature in the country, in terms of its legislative work. I think on the policy side there are some great things that were done in the last two years and some things that were left to be desired. But regardless, I think that you can empirically measure transparency at some level by saying, "Can you quickly and easily and in a way that is in context and intuitive, find out what the legislature is doing, and can you find out what the legislature is spending money on?" And in both of those counts I feel really good about the job we did.

Besides the facts about the state Senate that you can find online, I think [our transparency efforts] have been validated by the degree to which we've had so much interest in mimicking the approach that we took to opening up our legislative and administrative data from some of our peers in other states. Like, today: I got an inbound inquiry from the Arizona Legislature about how to replicate some of the work that we've done with mobile apps, and a couple weeks ago I was speaking with the new Republican-controlled House committee on oversight, in the U.S. House, and they were looking for our thoughts on how we'd done our open legislation system and how that related to the thomas.gov legislation site at the federal level. So in terms of transparency, I feel really good about what we did.

In terms of efficiency, I think the Senate today is partway through an overhaul in terms of the way the Senate manages its information, and making that as efficient as possible, and making all the technology that supports that as contemporary and cost-effective as possible. So, for example, we now host websites out in “the cloud.” All of our public facing websites, the Open Legislation website and nysenate.gov are hosted in the cloud. And that was far more efficient, cost-wise and labor-wise, than hosting them internally in the Senate's data center.

But a lot of our internal applications that manage the payroll systems of the Senate and whatnot are still hosted in what is I think a fairly expensive and labor-intensive way of hosting and developing those applications. We did a lot of work to start to improve those things, and got almost to the finish line in terms of what you think would be straightforward in terms of filling out time-sheets electronically instead of on paper. But I still think there's a long way to go and I'm very hopeful that the technology teams in the Senate will continue that work, and really try, because I think there's significant money to be saved through technology. So that's the efficiency pillar.

And in terms of participation, I'd say we certainly moved the ball forward a lot, but there's a whole lot more to be done by the Senate and frankly by every other government and legislature in the country as well. We did a number of prototype efforts at collecting citizen input on policy issues. We ran a couple of idea crowd-sourcing forums. Some of them - like on the property tax circuit breaker, which got hundreds of participants and hundreds of ideas - were sort of successful. We ran a bunch of virtual town halls, where people didn't need to physically go anywhere to actually have an interactive dialogue with their Senator. And of course we took public comment on all legislation - and still do - on our open legislation website, which is a first for legislatures. So I think that all that moves the ball forward.

In terms of really tapping the knowledge and the expertise of New Yorkers and all of their fields of knowledge and having their input consistently and regularly integrated into the legislative process, that's still not done consistently or effectively enough in my book. I think that there's a lot more ground to be taken in that regard. I hope that the Senate will continue to make strides in that area and I think to a large degree other governments are going to keep pushing the ball forward. I hope that the Senate can follow in some cases and not just lead in terms of that kind of innovation.

ZS: Hypothetically, if you had two more years on the job, would [tapping the expertise of New Yorkers] be something that you’d want to tackle or is there another big issue that you’d really want to have at?

AH: Yeah, there’s two things I'd want to tackle. One, we'd already started to do a lot more internal-facing work - you know, overhauling the enterprise technology systems of the Senate, both for cost savings and to make working there more efficient and  pleasant. So certainly we would've continued that work and I think [we would have] hosted more and more of our software applications externally rather than having to maintain our own internal infrastructure for that.

The other one would have been really - hopefully not in a vacuum, but in close collaboration with our peers in city councils and in other states, and at the federal level - to have figured out how to really get the viewpoints of 20 million New Yorkers to truly be part of the legislative process in a way that is meaningful and actionable for senators. That will be an ongoing, iterative process, but with the new CRM [Constituent Relationship Management] system that we deployed for the Senate - and some of the innovation that is happening at the federal level with a nonprofit called Expert Labs, which is trying to tap conversations in social media, Twitter, Facebook, what have you, and bring ideas from there into government policy process - I think there's a lot of exciting things that could be done there. I really think we just scratched the surface in terms of what's possible.

It’s a natural sequencing. I think you first have to expose to the world to the raw data about what you're doing in order for the world to react and say, "OK, here's what we think about it and here's how we want to change it.” So, I don't feel bad that we didn’t get all the way there. I think one had to come before the other, but I think there's a lot of work left to do.

ZS: Speaking of data, I was looking at the payroll reports that you helped make publicly available. On the most current report there’s no CIO listed. What’s your understanding of the future of your former position?

AH: My understanding - and of course this could be subject to change that I might not be privy to anymore - but my understanding is that they're going to return leadership of all technology-related projects, both internal-facing and public-facing, to Jim Bell, who was the Director of Senate Technology Services for a long time before I came on the scene, and with whom I had a really close and effective partnership over the last couple of years. So my understanding is that there won't be a CIO role, but that Jim will remain Director of Technology Services, and that all executive level technology decisions will ultimately be going through him.

I also think that it's likely that rather than the current Secretary of the Senate Frank Patience playing as significant a role as [former Secretary of the Senate] Angelo Ponti did in technology policy and decisions, that there will be a group of senators who will take a more direct role in weighing in on technology policies, priorities and investment decisions. All of that is my somewhat arms-length understanding.

I have a great deal of confidence in Jim [Bell], I think he was very effective as a leader under the former Republican majority prior to 2009. His charge then was quite significantly focused on internal technology support of senators and their staff. We came in with this “transparency, efficiency and participation” mandate, which empowered us to do a lot more public-facing work, where we really felt like we had a role to play for 20 million New Yorkers, not just in support of 62 senators. And now I think the pendulum's going to swing back a little bit to being about focusing on supporting senators and their staff and communicating with constituents.

My guess is there won't be quite as much focus on new innovations in terms of tools that expose data directly to the public without going through the lens of the senators. Anyway, I think it is the senators’ institution ultimately and that's their call, in terms of what the priorities should be. So, again, I don't impugn them for that shift in priorities, and I have a lot of confidence in [Bell] and his team, and their competence to be able to execute that new mixture of priorities.

And I think, at least so far, they've maintained all of the systems that we developed including Open Legislation and nysenate.gov. Because they've already been built and have matured to a significant degree, those are sort of inherently more in an operations mode rather than an innovation mode. They just kind of work. So there's certainly some ongoing work to do on [those tools], and I'm sure there's some good new ideas that the current majority will have in terms of how they can be improved upon.

I think it’s appropriate that there’s less investment going into them going forward than there was in the first two years, because we were taking something that didn’t exist and building it from scratch, whereas now these tools already exist and have achieved a significant degree of stability and maturity.

ZS: Is it fair to say it’s an “end of an era” for this kind of Gov 2.0 optimism at the New York State Senate?

AH: I don't know if that is fair, actually. I think that time will tell. Senators are very responsive to their constituents to the extent that constituents are interested in continuing to be a part of the legislative process - and hopefully, actually upping the ante there.

I think there's a very good chance that that era will be continued. It may be spoken about a bit differently, rhetorically, it may be a different mixture of tools and approaches, but I don't think that there's a big shift in direction necessarily at all, I think it will depend on what advocacy groups and individual citizens ask for. I don't expect the tools that we’ve opened up, like public comment on legislation, to be rolled back. So I think it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens who aren't part of that government entity right now to make use of those tools, and to demonstrate their value in doing so.

ZS: I saw some online rumblings saying that you’d be a good fit for the recently vacated Deputy Chief Technology Officer position at the White House. Any truth to those rumors?

AH: I hope it's true that I'd be good, so to that extent maybe. But no, I'm not considering that position.

I was honored to be mentioned. But I do know who's being tapped for that role and I don't think it's public yet, so I won’t say it. But I’m really excited about the person that they’re tapping for that. For my part, I'm a New Yorker and I'm pretty committed to being based in New York. I may certainly have opportunities to do some work in support of federal entities, but I'm going to do it from my home, which is New York.

ZS: Lastly, after two years you’ve got a lot of firsts under your belt as CIO. And more broadly, you’re still very much engaged in the Open Gov community. What’s your general take on the current state of the Gov 2.0 movement?

AH: First of all, it's hard to generalize. It goes through cycles of being sort of buzz worthy and everyone being excited about things. I think in the latter part of 2010 there was a lot of mutterings about a sophomore slump for open government. In reality, a lot of the systems that support opening up data, which come after giving the policy mandate to open up data, are going to just take a while to build. And they are being built, and I think we're going to see more and more roll outs of really meaningful open government tools that really “bake in” access to information into the way that governments do business.

I think two specific areas that will get a lot of focus in the next year will be [1.] open data systems that help governments collaborate with one another. And [2.] data being presented in a form that is intended to foster innovation - meaning, helping entrepreneurs and citizens actually innovate by making use of [public] data. So it's not just for transparency purposes, but it’s really to help people innovate, create new economic opportunity, streamline government, those sorts of things. They may have had a genesis in terms of transparency, but I think that innovation and that kind of economic opportunity is the end game for a lot of these efforts over the next two years.


WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.