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Chief techie: All bark and no bite?

Julius Genachowski might not have realized the turmoil his recent employment decision would cause, but in turning down President Barack Obama’s offer to make him chief technology officer, Genachowski reopened a discussion that had seemed settled.

Obama’s campaign and transition team leader on technology policy reportedly turned down the CTO position — and instead grabbed the post of chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — because he realized the vaguely defined CTO position would not include policy-making authority.

That sent shock waves through a community of federal information technology advocates who had largely expected the position to be a powerful, agenda-setting role filled by someone with a deep understanding of federal IT needs and — not least — the president’s ear.

So just what will the position be? A CTO with no ability to develop and enforce policy could simply be a glorified adviser and speechifier. It won’t bring the position to the level most IT advocates were hoping for.

Bob Otto, executive vice president of advisory services at Agilex Technologies and former chief information officer and CTO at the U.S. Postal Service, said the federal CTO might be able to wield some influence for a year or so just because of his or her geographical closeness to the Oval Office. However, as the novelty of a new president fades, the power of the CTO position will, too, if it doesn’t have formal authority, Otto said.

The speculation over what kind of person will fill the position also continues to evolve. Now that it appears the position might be less about detailed policy work, there is more head-scratching over what sort of professional background Obama is looking for.

BusinessWeek reported Jan. 15 that two of the top candidates are Vivek Kundra, CTO for Washington, D.C., and Padmasree Warrior, CTO at Cisco Systems.

Kundra has widely been considered a leading contender for some time, but Warrior’s name is less familiar.

However, a lack of policy power might deter good candidates, said Kurt Roemer, chief security strategist at Citrix Systems.

“Without policy responsibility, the CTO will only be making technology recommendations,” Roemer said.

“These recommendations will then need to be adopted into individual agency policies, instead of presenting a common technology policy for the government as a whole. A CTO who is shackled in this way is not truly a CTO, but merely a technology adviser.” Media coverage has reflected the shifting discussions within the federal IT community as the understanding of the CTO’s place in the pecking order has changed. On Jan. 21, writer Mike Schaffner gave some weight to having a strong and forceful technology advocate in the White House, but still questioned whether anyone could be effective without having the tools of real power.

“Perhaps the phrase Al Capone purportedly said holds true here: ‘You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word,’” Schaffner wrote. “The CTO needs the ‘gun’ of policy-making and budget authority. We’ll soon see if Obama is willing to give that kind of power to the CTO.”

Obama’s campaign statements are unclear on the degree to which the CTO would set policy. The relevant page on his campaign Web site says the CTO “will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.” However, Obama is already moving to put the CTO into action even before there’s an actual person holding the job.

In a memo issued Jan. 21, the first full day of his presidency, Obama repeated his determination to keep the government open and transparent and release information to the public quickly. To that end, the memo directs the CTO, in coordination with the leaders of the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, “to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive … that instructs executive departments and agencies to take specific actions implementing the principles set forth in this memorandum.” Just parsing that sentence could take 120 days.

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Reader comments

Thu, Feb 19, 2009

you wrote: "Do you think openness for goverment is new? It is called the eGOV initiative." Nice try, but not true: eGov initiatives were/are Bush plans for consolidation of IT investment across agencies--not openness. Transparency had only been a goal when Congress insisted on it, such as the Obama-Coburn Transparency and Accountability Act. Even then Bush's OMB did the minimum, lowest quality thing they could get away with.

Mon, Feb 2, 2009

you guys obviously don't understand the government. No bureaucrat will ever change unless there are fiscal costs to the organization if compliance doesn't happen. Do you really think the CIO's of this organizations have been wandering around waiting for guidance or advice? Do you think openness for goverment is new? It is called the eGOV initiative. Obama's comments are pretty empty headed.

Fri, Jan 30, 2009

Agree with previous comment. In addition, changes to existing infrastructure and programs such as GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy and Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) could be challenging to determine the specifics and dotted-line reporting structures.

Wed, Jan 28, 2009

What a small-minded perspective. Nothing prevents anyone from taking the position and building consenus and making policies in cooperation with existing leadership. You don't need a military top down authority command structure to make things happen, nor does statute or law preven this person from doing the people's work.

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