From ELC: McCain, Obama IT reps face off

Technology representatives for presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama traded contrasting views in Williamsburg, Va., Octoboer 28 on how each candidate would likely tackle a variety of information technology issues if elected.


Michael Nelson, visiting professor of Internet studies in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture and Technology Program and an adviser to the Obama campaign, spoke for the Democratic candidate. He also advised the Clinton administration on technology and was director of Internet technology and strategy at IBM before switching to academia.


Tim Hugo, executive director of the Free File Alliance, which offers free tax-filing services, represented the McCain campaign. He previously worked as a congressional aide and served in George H.W. Bush’s administration.


The two campaign representatives responded to questions from a panel of journalists at the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council’s Executive Leadership Conference, providing diverging views on how citizens, companies and government IT initiatives might gain or lose under their respective leaders.


On the role of contractors and systems integrators:


"We need an ecosystem,” Nelson said. That means looking for ways to tie federal, state and local IT systems together through better coordination. “The federal government can be the facilitator,” potentially allowing the government to spend less, he said. Contractors in that environment “have the ability to tie the pieces together,” he added. An Obama administration might also “rewrite the rules to procure services more quickly, coordinating with state and local governments,” Nelson said.


A McCain administration would continue to support the use of contractors, Hugo said. He warned that he believes an Obama administration would seek to bring work back into the government and reduce contractor services. “It will be bad for the IT contractor business,” Hugo said, drawing a brief rebuttal from Nelson to the contrary.


On the importance of transparency:


Nelson said transparency was at the core of Obama’s approach to using informal networking to solicit advice, which was reflected in the campaign’s use of the Web and social-networking tools. “It only works if government does a better job of saying, ‘Here’s the question, here’s what we want to know,’” he said.


Hugo said McCain would operate differently from the Bush administrations and acknowledged that the current president “hasn’t done such a good job” on transparency. Hugo said McCain would do more to ensure it.


On the need for cybersecurity in the face of rising federal deficits:


Hugo said McCain would take a strong stand on cybersecurity. “It’s as important as what our military does,” he said, noting that agency networks have come under attack from organized forces in China and Russia. Efforts to ensure cybersecurity must be maintained and increased, he said.


It is imperative that government not engineer security for today but for every day, he added.


Nelson concurred, saying, “We need a solid, secure foundation. You can’t do this in an affordable way. But we have a chance, with the move to cloud computing -- and a new workforce -- to remake federal infrastructure with security built in.”


He added that a key component of cybersecurity, beyond intrusion detection and self-monitoring, is the need for "immutable" reports from systems that record data transactions in logs that cannot be hacked, “so we know for certain your data was not corrupted.”


He cautioned, however, that new tools won’t be deployed if the government is forced to use five- to 10-year-old technology.


On the issue of trade-offs between privacy and security:


Nelson said there doesn’t need to be a trade-off. There are ways to strengthen both, he said. However, there is still the question of how to get government working with contractors to secure the information flowing between systems.


“It’s not a question of privacy and security,” Nelson said. “It’s privacy, security and transparency. If you know how [information] has been used, people are willing to trust it.”


Hugo said the issue comes down to a matter of tolerance. “The farther we get away from [the 2001 terrorist attacks], the more people are asking about privacy,” he said, suggesting that in times of emergency, people are willing to forgo privacy for the sake of security.


On the role of the chief information officer in the new administration:


“Over the last 30 years,” Nelson said, “we’ve seen an evolution in corporations. In 1975, we had the director of data processing. In 1985, we had the [vice president] of information management. In 1995, we got the CIO. By 2005, companies were starting to get [chief technology officers] as well. By 2010-15, the person making the critical IT decisions will be [the chief executive officer]. I’m convinced Obama does get this concept” and that he understands, if elected “to the White House, it’s because of IT.”


Nelson said a good illustration of Obama’s understanding was detailed in an article in the September/October issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine titled, “How Obama Really Did It.” http://www.technologyreview.com/web/21222/?a=f


Hugo agreed that the need to understand technology is essential for every organization.


However, he warned the audience to think about what the consequences of a Democratic victory would mean to their companies rather than focusing on how well technology gets used.


On how the new administration might build on e-government and reform efforts:


Hugo said a McCain administration would continue to support moving forward with IT in support of agencies’ missions.


Nelson said, “The challenge is to go to the next level and foster collaboration in new ways. To do that requires a new vision.”


“I really think we have an opportunity to change the way government works,” Nelson said. “I see a different management style made possible by the Internet and networking tools. I like to think of it like the open-source software model in solving our problems. It’s more effective, much closer to the citizen and, in the end, [a way toward] a smaller government.”

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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