Obama outlines federal CTO position; Where's the power?

Barack Obama unveiled plans for a chief technology officer, support for Net neutrality, improving education, next-generation broadband networks and more research spending. Oh yeah, and there will be more open government and feds using wikis and blogs.

Barack Obama unveiled plans for a chief technology officer, support for Net neutrality, improving education, next-generation broadband networks and more research spending. Oh yeah, and there will be more open government and feds using wikis and blogs.

This agenda, outlined in this PDF, makes for good fodder. VentureBeat was first with details of the plan. Obama's goals are sure to set Silicon Valley all aflutter with Web 2.0 talking points, but let's focus on what this CTO would do.

According to Obama's outline:

  • Obama will appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.
  • The CTO will have a specific focus on transparency, by ensuring that each arm of the federal government makes its records open and accessible as the E-Government Act requires. The CTO will also focus on using new technologies to solicit and receive information back from citizens to improve the functioning of democratic government.
  • The CTO will also ensure technological interoperability of key government functions. For example, the Chief Technology Officer will oversee the development of a national, interoperable wireless network for local, state and federal first responders as the 9/11 commission recommended. This will ensure that fire officials, police officers and EMTs from different jurisdictions have the ability to communicate with each other during a crisis and we do not have a repeat of the failure to deliver critical public services that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Who would disagree with this? No one. But here's a provision Obama should add:

The CTO will have budgetary power and the ability to audit information technology projects at various agencies. He will work with the Office of Management and Budget and General Accountability Office to audit agencies' technology plans.

While wikis, blogs, Net neutrality and open government are fine talking points they miss the point. The reality is this: The federal government needs better IT project management. The government agencies need a standard template for CIO power. For instance, the CIO at the Department of Homeland Security has to line up 22 agencies and their various IT systems. The DHS CIO has the hardest job on the planet--and until recently no budget authority. For more you can check out the GAO's latest tome on DHS's IT management challenges.

Many of Obama's initiatives are already underway in the federal government, but the issue is that CIOs generally aren't powerful in the government. In business, CIOs have a seat at the CEO's table. In the government, CIOs are hamstrung in most cases. Sure some agencies have their IT act together, but as a whole they don't. The good news is Obama wants to put a CTO at the table. But I need a little more. To rectify the government's IT woes this CTO will have to bust some heads. He or she can start with the FBI and work around the government.

When there's an IT failure in the government here's what we get: A Congressional hearing and some legislator grandstanding followed by more money thrown down the well. We need someone that's going to crack a whip and maybe even toss out the folks responsible for poor project management. For this CTO to really have an impact Obama needs to drop the Web 2.0 banter and focus more on giving this position the power it deserves.

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