Obama CTO may lack sufficient influence

The uncertainty about whether the chief technology officer in the Obama administration would have policy-making authority raises questions about how effective the CTO would be in helping to transform how agencies operate, former federal information technology executives said recently.

Without policy-making and budget authority, the CTO that President-elect Barack Obama chooses will have to rely on influence, said Bob Otto, executive vice president for advisory services at Agilex Technologies Inc. and former chief information officer and CTO for the U.S. Postal Service.

“For the first year, the influence of the president will have tremendous clout in getting attention, priority and things moving,” Otto said, adding that will likely fade because the president will have a lot of critical issues taking his attention.

“It has been my experience that authority will drive behavior long after the honeymoon of a new president is over,” Otto said.

The best game plan is to have a CTO with the authority to define and implement a technology vision and having a champion such as the president, Otto said. He noted that the CTO would be at arm’s length to the president and have the president’s endorsement.

The CTO needs budget authority, Otto said. Establishing an information technology vision of where the country should be in three or five years will not make that vision happen; a vision requires strategies, budget realignments and creating new policy across federal, state and local governments to drive their leaders to build to and comply with it, he said.

“If this position does not have policy-making authority, I believe that this new function will serve only as being an adviser to the president, and a nationwide technology vision will not become a reality,” Otto said.

Without budget authority over IT investments, the CTO will have to have “tremendous influence” on department heads and their CIO staff to make sure that they are investing correctly in the president’s IT vision.

“While I believe that the president can set the tone with the cabinet heads, and the CTO can help drive this, agency CIOs and program managers will still look at their roles as needing to satisfy the agency and not building into a solution for the country,” Otto said.

The Obama transition team would not comment on details of what authorities the newly created position will include or where it would be located in the White House organization. The transition team’s Web site, www.change.gov, has a general explanation for the position as leading an interagency effort to implement the most effective technologies and share best practices.

Speculation has grown over who would be Obama’s choice to be the CTO and how much influence the position would wield. Reports earlier this week indicated that the leading candidate, Julius Genachowski, Obama’s technology adviser, agreed instead to become the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission because the CTO position lacked policy-making authority.

Norm Lorentz, who was the first CTO in the Office of Management and Budget and is now vice president of the Council for Excellence in Government, said that budget authority is necessary and should be stronger than it currently is in OMB. It would help the CTO drive performance improvement with agency leaders.

“It [authority] should entail the ability to impact budget approval on areas where the president is expecting extraordinary improvement,” he said.

The fact that Obama selected a chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, who is also the deputy director for management, “shows me he gets it as far as management and measurement of performance,” Lorentz said. The CTO, chief performance officer and the president stand together, “almost in a triad,” to improve how agencies will operate and be accountable, he said.

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