In his first public address since his appointment as federal CIO, Steven VanRoekel said his first priority will be to maximize the government’s ROI in technology innovation beginning with closing and optimizing data centers.

At an event co-hosted by TechAmerica, TechNet and PARC on Tuesday at the Churchill Club in Palo Alto.

The day before VanRoekel’s appearance, Breaking Gov reported that the nationwide network of 72 government-supported, state-run data centers used for sharing law enforcement and counterterrorism information are coming under increasing fire. The criticism comes as federal budget cuts, intra-agency turf battles and Congressional scrutiny are raising fresh questions about their effectiveness.

However, Van Roekel said plans for the data centers will save up to $6 billion of the government’s current $80 billion annual IT budget. The project will involve moving servers to the cloud and shifting federal spending from a “capital expense model” to an “operating expense model,” he said.

Contrary to some reports that “American’s losing its ability to innovate” and “our best days our behind us,” VanRoekel said, “We’re unlocking amazing innovations in technologies in everything we do and government needs to play a role in rducing barriers to growth and investment.”

“America’s future depends on our ability to innovate,” he said. “That could be more true…than in the federal government. … If anyone doubts now is the time to invest (in federal IT), more than half of Fortune 500 companies were founded during the worst economic times.”

The up side of a down economy, VanRoekel said, is access a smart, eager workforce and public-private partnerships to drive ideas, jobs and global competition.