The United States CTO needs to be a CIO

Edit: I've now done a radio interview in connection with this post. That and other related analysis can be found starting from this link.

During the recent campaign, Barack Obama promised to name a national Chief Technical Officer. The blogosphere has now erupted in discussion as to who that should be. I, for example, recommend Charles Rossotti, a stellar entrepreneur and public servant, because of his unparalleled accomplishments in improving government IT. John Doerr, however, favors Bill Joy, a great technologist turned venture capitalist, presumably for his abilities as a technology visionary.

Clearly, Doerr and I aren't talking about the same thing. I'm recommending my best candidate for what would more properly be called a Chief INFORMATION Officer, while Doerr favors a true CTO. In this disagreement, I have a couple of heavyweights on my side, namely Vint Cerf (sort of) and, more important, Barack Obama himself. Here's Obama's official characterization of the role:

  • 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.

Sure sounds like a get-things-done CIO – i.e., a technology implementation leader -- to me!

Now, I'm all in favor of having a visionary CTO in addition to the CIO, whether reporting to the CIO or otherwise. No matter how much reform there is of government procurement processes, technology acquisition cycles will surely remain long, and that calls for considerable technology-choosing astuteness when the opportunity for decision-making does present itself. But the need for a true CIO – whether called “CIO,” “CTO,” or “Abacus Czar” -- is compelling. Besides the security, communications interoperability, and transparency initiatives outlined above, we need an experienced technology implementation leader to:

  • Recommend major changes in government IT contracting. Right now, information technology is bought at the wrong level of granularity, too coarse and too fine at once. Private sector CIOs make broad technology architecture decisions, then make incremental purchases as needed. Public sector IT managers, however, are generally compelled to make purchases on a “project” basis, which allows neither the sanity of broad-scale planning nor the economies and adaptability of just-in-time acquisition.
  • Establish best practices in a broad range of IT areas. Obama's “transparency” initiative involves pushing the state of the art in public-facing technology for search, query, and audio/video, at a minimum. Other areas of major technical challenge include internal search, knowledge management, and social networking; disaster robustness; planning in the face of political budgeting uncertainty; numbers-based management without the benefit of a profit/loss statement ... and the list could easily be twice as long.
  • Interact with the private sector. From electronic health records to the general supply chain, there are huge opportunities for public/private interoperability, quite apart from the obvious customer/vendor relationships the government has with the IT industry.
  • Improve training, recruiting, and retention. Anywhere government needs employees whose skills are also in high demand in the private sector, government pay scales cause difficulties. IT is a top area for that problem. Outstanding leadership is needed to overcome it.

Further suggestions for Obama Adminstration IT priorities are here.

Richard Koman seems to have views similar to mine. As he puts it:

The CTO job is a political job, a bureaucratic job. The person who succeeds in that job will be someone who can bring an entrepreneurial spirit into a government setting. They will have to familiar with the CTO positions at the whole range of federal agencies; they will have to know their way around Washington to some extent; they will know how to work with large, combative constituencies; and they will expect to be held accountable.

Koman suggests a state CTO for the job; I suggest Rossotti. Either way, what's most needed is somebody with the proven ability to get IT work done in government.

Edit: In response to commentary, I followed up with more specifics.

Edit: If the official Obama link ever goes away, this one may help as a substitute.

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