Technology means more than just IT

Obama’s tech leader must not limit agenda to security, infrastructure

The Obama presidential campaign promoted the creation of a federal chief technology officer under the banner of creating a transparent and connected democracy. According to campaign material, the CTO will be charged with ensuring that agencies “have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century” and will lead an interagency effort to “ensure that they use best-in-class technologies.” 

It’s axiomatic that technology is central to nearly everything in life, enabling communication and the flow of information vital to processes in our personal lives, business and government. The U.S. economy increasingly depends on the service sector, which is grounded in collaboration, marginal efficiency, knowledge deployment and sustainability.

The new federal CTO has a vital role to look beyond typical information technology programs such as data security and infrastructure in establishing a national technology strategy. The federal CTO should take an expansive view, both guiding and setting policy wherever technology intersects with the government’s mission to serve.

However, the CTO can also look at more narrow issues along the way. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can have a significant effect on climate change and national security, two areas of critical importance to the incoming Obama administration. President-elect Barack Obama has placed early and heavy emphases on increased energy efficiency and reduced dependency on fossil fuels. He promised to set annual targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and achieve a further 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.

The ICT industry is unique in that it can not only reduce its own carbon footprint but also help other industries and government do so. According to the SMART 2020 Report — U.S. Addendum (available at, the ICT industry could enable the reduction of total carbon dioxide emissions in the United States by 13 percent to 22 percent, deliver gross energy and fuels savings as much as $240 billion, and reduce dependence on imported oil by as much as 36 percent. The new CTO should use ICT to help the president meet his goal of cutting carbon emissions by 2050.

In addition, as the new federal CTO coordinates IT policy across the federal government, he or she should advance improved environmental performance in the government.

In using technology to address critical issues, the new CTO can show people that government is willing tackle today’s most pressing issues in new and innovative ways that support a stronger economy. This is essential not only to the success of the Obama presidency but also for the nation as it struggles to meet challenges ranging from declining educational performance and rising health care costs to the flagging economy and national security threats.

A strong federal CTO is necessary to help mitigate these problems.
Nelson, executive director of e-government at Microsoft, is a former chief information officer at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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