Editorial: How to assemble a CTO

Given the right role and authority, the CTO could prove to be a valuable asset to the president and an ally of the CIOs

It is not difficult to imagine various scenarios in which a federal chief technology officer ends up leading a life of quiet desperation.

Imagine if President-elect Barack Obama creates a CTO position, as he originally proposed, to develop cross-agency technology policies and strategies — but provides the person in the role with no meaningful authority to compel agency leaders to take any needed actions.

Or perhaps the CTO ends up with an agenda so broad and complex that success is not only impossible to reach but difficult even to define.

Or in either of those scenarios, the CTO might try to micromanage the agency chief information officers, eventually fostering a culture of resistance in which everyone is miserable.

But such failures, while possible, are not necessary. Given the right role and authority, the CTO could prove to be a valuable asset to the president and an ally of the CIOs.

In any scenario, it is essential that the CTO have the ability to enforce policies and strategies through the budget process. If an agency plans to develop systems or programs that do not fall in line with policy mandates, the CTO should have the option of freezing funding until issues are resolved. Without that authority — without that threat — the CTO would have a difficult time engineering significant change in a timely fashion.

Agencies do not need a meddler-in-chief who exercises such authority capriciously. Under the Bush administration, officials at the Office of Management and Budget — in particular, Clay Johnson and Karen Evans — have demonstrated it is possible to finesse the current governance structure to push through key policies and instill new management disciplines.

As part of the job, the CTO should work with OMB to develop technology policies and strategies. But the federal government does not need yet another policy wonk. Instead, the administration should tap the CTO to tackle exceptional initiatives — those that require immediate action and significant operational changes.

The CTO could serve as the bureaucratic equivalent of the Marines, laying the groundwork for OMB’s army of budget analysts and providing cover for the CIOs, most of whom have limited authority in their own agencies.

About the Author

John Stein Monroe, a former editor-in-chief of FCW, is the custom editorial director for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group.

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