Obama calls for federal CTO

Policy experts are split on the potential effectiveness of the executive position

Tech policies of some presidential candidates

Among the 2008 presidential candidates, only Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John Edwards have released plans related to federal technology and procurement policy. However, some of the other candidates have expressed their views on information technology subjects.

Clinton would:

  • Appoint an assistant to the president for science and technology policy.

  • Strengthen the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

  • Cut half a million government contractor jobs, including IT jobs.

Edwards would:
  • Provide broadband connectivity to all residences in the United States by 2010.

  • Support net neutrality.

Mitt Romney would:
  • Support a permanent moratorium on Internet taxes.

  • Open markets for technology competition.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would:
  • Support a permanent moratorium on Internet taxes.

  • Refocus the mission of the Federal Communications Commission from that of promoting net neutrality to policing anti-competitive behavior, consumer predators and identity theft.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

It is standard operating procedure for presidential candidates to promise to change the federal government. Whether they propose cutting the number of contractors or outsourcing more work, candidates like to promise a better-managed government. However, the 2008 election could bring an unprecedented focus on the way the government manages information technology.

Democratic hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) raised the subject in a technology policy plan, released Nov. 14, in which he promised to promote greater government transparency, expand the country’s broadband infrastructure and create a new IT leadership position in the federal government.

“I will appoint the nation’s first [chief technology officer] to coordinate and make certain that we are always at the forefront of technology and that we are incorporating it into every decision that we make,” Obama said in a speech at Google’s headquarters the same day he released the plan.

The CTO’s responsibilities would include working with agency technology officers and chief information officers to share best practices, overseeing the development of an interoperable wireless network for first responders, increasing government transparency by adopting standard electronic document formats, and using IT to let people comment on proposed laws.

The plan does not indicate whom the CTO position would report to. Bruce McConnell, president of Government Futures and an Office of Management and Budget official during the Clinton administration, said a federal CTO would probably be an assistant to the president or work at OMB or the Executive Office of the President.

Obama’s campaign developed the plan after receiving advice from numerous technology experts, said Beth Simone Noveck, director of New York Law School’s Institute for Information Law and Policy and one of the experts consulted.

Early in his administration, President Bush named a federal CTO who had some of the authorities that Obama has proposed. Norman Lorentz held that position from January 2002 until August 2003, when he returned to the private sector. The title was then changed to chief architect.

McConnell said Obama’s plan for the CTO position made sense because the primary functions are related to one another.

McConnell’s group is examining the presidential candidates’ technology policies and will release its findings in January.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, is less enthusiastic about Obama’s plan. Although he supports greater government transparency, he said the CTO role is redundant.

But Obama’s advisers said his IT plan, with its support for open document formats, would strengthen existing efforts to enhance government transparency.

“This is about setting up a structure to accomplish those values,” Noveck said.

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