Can the U.S. CTO avoid being steamrolled by bureaucracy?

There has been a lot of chatter about President Elect Barack Obama's plan to name a U.S.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

There has been a lot of chatter about President Elect Barack Obama's plan to name a U.S. chief technology officer and the biggest challenge for anyone who takes the job is this: How do you avoid being consumed by a bulky bureaucratic machine known as the government?

On Friday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he wasn't interested (Techmeme). Schmidt told Mad Money's Jim Cramer that he's happy to stick around at Google. And why would Schmidt take the job? Schmidt knows mission impossible when he sees it. He was at Novell and Sun and has the scars from battling Microsoft.

Dan Farber notes that any CTO in Obama's cabinet will have to watch turf wars with the other CTOs--not to mention CIOs--at various agencies. That's true, but the larger issue is how do you insulate a CTO, give him or her autonomy and keep that person from becoming part of the bureaucracy?

I wish I had the answer. Short of dismantling a hulking government and starting over the solutions are elusive.

If the new CTO is going to accomplish anything--I'm not optimistic--he will need a green field. He'll need to blow up the status quo. The CTO will need to act like a startup CEO yet have enough clout to push dinosaur agencies around. Turf wars will be inevitable but the outcome will depend on whether the new CTO is given authority.

And to have any chance, the CTO will need real authority. The problem: Under the current government bureaucracy you really can't drive information technology change. Exhibit A is the Department of Homeland Security. There are too many CIOs, too many legacy systems, too many projects and too many cooks in the kitchen. Ask any CIO at a large company and every one of them would say they'd love to simply start over. Nuke the rat's nest of applications and start fresh. Magnify that dream by 100 and you'll know how the U.S. CTO is going to feel.

If this CTO accomplishes just three of items on Obama's laundry list of tech initiatives--health care IT, patent reform and bringing government into the 21st century--it would be a miracle. But it's worth a shot. However, to work miracles this CTO will need real authority and some firewall to shield the mission from the bureaucracy.

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