How Jose Arrieta Became a Blockchain Champion

Jose Arrieta, HHS

Jose Arrieta has left his mark on IT history as the person who created the first blockchain in U.S. federal government — and only the second in the world — to be used for public procurement. 

Today, he serves as the chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing technology efforts during a critical time. Under his leadership, HHS has slashed operating costs, consolidated contracts and implemented several moves to leverage advanced technology — including blockchain, a cryptographed digital ledger that is by design resistant to data modification.

The government career that led to him taking the technology helm of HHS back in May began around 15 years ago.

“It’s a long story as to how I got into this role,” he said.

La Paz, Bolivia

Back in 2001, he was working his way through Susquehanna University as a business administration and marketing student where he would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. About a year after graduating, Arrieta began working as a procurement analyst and contracting officer at the General Services Administration. In 2009, he completed his MBA from American University.

Arrieta went on to become a program manager at the Transportation Security Administration, and serve as an industry liaison and ombudsman at the Department of Homeland Security. Later, he directed the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization at the Treasury Department, which then was interested in bitcoin, a digital currency powered by blockchain. Arrieta’s supervisor noted his background in technology and asked him to serve on a working group at the National Security Council on emerging technology.

“I was interested in blockchain as it related to connecting a range of different IT systems and creating a standardized data layer,” Arrieta said. “I had been telling her that I thought blockchain would be very transformational to a number of other fields rather than just money exchange.”

The working group was considering about 20 different emerging technologies. Blockchain was near the bottom of that list. With visions of how blockchain could have transformed his work at DHS in building disparate systems, Arrieta began leading a charge to use the technology as a way to empower the move to cloud.

“I really pushed that we should look at blockchain more seriously as it relates to using it as a mechanism for modernization,” he said. “And that’s really when I got my start.”

An incident during a trip to his wife’s native La Paz, Bolivia, gave him an epiphany. Treasury focuses a lot on financial inclusion in particular with underprivileged children and communities around the world, he said.

As he and his wife were walking out of a movie theater in La Paz, they heard a child — perhaps 6 or 7, about the age of their own son — very upset. 

“What’s going on?” Arrieta asked, in Spanish. 

An older child had taken his food. 

“Where are your parents?”

His wife interjected in English: “He doesn’t have any parents. In fact, he probably doesn’t know his name.”

He was a homeless boy who likely had no legal identity, no medical records and no formal documented existence. 

“We of course went and bought him some food and did what we could to hopefully make his night better,” Arrieta said. “But I realized the power of blockchain for identity and how it can transform underprivileged folks’ lives in the world.”

With no identity, opening a bank account becomes impossible, so any money gained is at high risk of being stolen. Without an account, one doesn’t accrue interest. And maybe because that money isn’t there when needed, that individual continues living in poverty.

“But if you have a digital identity at a very low cost, you can have a bank account, you can go see a doctor, you can go clean cars (a common job for the homeless in Bolivia) … and put those earnings into a bank account versus carrying it around in your pockets,” Arrieta said.

A complicated technology solution became firmly linked to an ability to alleviate human suffering.

Blockchain at HHS

It was about that time the Treasury deputy secretary asked Arrieta if he would be the Treasury representative to the working group and the National Security Council on emerging technology. 

Aware of the politics around formal identity, Arrieta began getting curious about other uses.

“I said, ‘Hey, what if I went into an operations role in public procurement, and I implemented it and proved that it worked and prove that it lowered cost?” he said. “And if I was able to do that, then I could tackle something like identity because the model would be proven to work.”

He then transitioned to GSA and began pitching his ideas about blockchain. Eventually, he led the first proof in the U.S. government for using blockchain for public procurement. The proof was designed to streamline onboarding time for certain contract holders.

That project led to a call from HHS where leaders were looking to put money and resources behind blockchain in the areas of contract writing, acquisition planning and system modernization.

Since he came on board with HHS about two years ago, Arrieta has led the building of HHS Accelerate, the core of an effort to simplify acquisitions through a series of containerized microservices off the blockchain designed to simplify paperwork and acquisitions as well as share information. 

Arrieta’s work has garnered him numerous awards and recognitions in the government space, including a WashingtonExec 2018 Pinnacle Award for his innovations. 

Outside Government Work

A former college basketball player, Arrieta enjoys connecting with his young son and daughter through scouts, soccer, baseball, hiking, Legos and Barbies, among other activities.

Arrieta also teaches blockchain at Johns Hopkins University and public procurement and acquisition courses at the University of Virginia. He is also an adviser to the dean of the Kogod Business School at American University, where he offers guidance on a data science lab to explore blockchain uses.

“And I’ve written extensively on the topic of using blockchain in alternative investment magazines, on using blockchain to kind of modernize the way commercial industry does business,” he said.

If that’s not enough, he also reads about 60 books each year on topics ranging from Shakespeare to the global competitive advantage between rival nations to the guy who ran operations at Pixar.

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