Candidates talk IT — now what?

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has released a technology platform centered on creating an environment in which industry can solve many of the nation’s technology challenges. Although the McCain plan differs from his rival’s technology platform, it does touch some similar general themes, observers say.

McCain’s plan would emphasize using public/private research and development grants to encourage the government’s application of technology and establish a nationwide public safety network for first responders by the end of his first term, according to the plan released Aug. 14.

In general, McCain would also make more government information available online.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, laid out similar goals in his technology strategy released in November 2007.

However, although some of the overarching objectives match, the two candidates’ approaches are different and experts say neither has explained how they would pay for technology agendas.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, which has given each of the candidates mixed reviews on their technology platforms, said the candidates’ emphasis can be seen as differences in party ideologies. The group will not be endorsing a candidate.
For example, McCain’s plan advocates deregulation and lower taxes as a way to expand access to IT, while Obama’s plan urges greater government involvement to get more Americans online and increase transparency.

The two candidates also differ in their approach to net neutrality, a concept that would bar Internet providers from playing favorites among Web sites. That debate has arisen in recent years because some Internet providers would like to charge Web site owners fees for faster access to that ISP’s customers.

Obama has said he would work to ensure net neutrality, while McCain has said he would not support regulation to achieve that goal.

Thomas Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute, which is supported by large IT, technology and telecommunications firms that include Google, AT&T, Verizon and Cisco, said that from an industry perspective, the next president should pay more attention to technology policy. 

Bruce McConnell, who advised Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton while serving in the Office of Management and Budget’s information policy and technology  branch, and eventually as its chief, said he gives Obama credit because he got his plan out sooner and seems more visionary.

However, either candidate will face significant practical difficulties in implementing their IT policies, McConnell said.

“The $64,000 question is how fast can anyone get some of these things done,” he said. “The most important thing is that the people who he inevitably will delegate this to, do they have his ear? Do they have the ability to get things done in the administration?”

On the other hand, Glenn Schlarman, another former chief of OMB’s information policy and technology branch, said the plans struck him as substantively similar and both lacked a “wow factor.” 

He echoed McConnell’s emphasis on the need for the next administration to come into office with a plan for getting its technology agenda across.

“They better have very clearly defined and documented roles and responsibilities for precisely who is going to do what, when are they going to do it and how much is it going to cost,” he said. “The devil is always in the details, so these plans or programs they have don’t mention the one thing that everybody always forgets and that is: How are we going to make sure this works, and who is going to make sure it works?”

Andrew Rasiej, one of the founders of the nonpartisan g oup blog techpresident, which covers how technology is affecting the presidential campaign, said that the differences were also substantive. The group has not formally supported either candidate.

Rasiej, a Democratic operative who has in the past given advice on the use of the Internet to Obama and others but is not associated with the campaign, said Obama has a more detailed plan for how to move the country forward through technology.

Meanwhile, Art Swift, a spokesman for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, said the McCain platform was more detailed and relevant to the group’s members. That group is also not endorsing either candidate. 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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