Campaign surrogates face off at leadership conference

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama did not appear at the Executive Leadership Conference last week, but attendees got the next best thing.

Advisers to the campaigns held a spirited debate about information technology policy in front of a mixed government and industry audience.

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.

Nelson 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 President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

The two responded to questions from a panel of journalists on a range of topics.

On the agency CIO
“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 [chief information officer]. 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.”

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 contractors
“We need an ecosystem,” Nelson said. That means looking for ways to tie federal, state and local IT systems together through better coordination. The government can be a facilitator to coordinate private-sector firms, potentially allowing the government to spend less, he said. 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. Hugo 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 cybersecurity
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.

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.”

On balancing security and privacy
Nelson said there doesn’t need to be a trade-off between security and privacy. There are ways to strengthen both, he said.

However, the question remains of how to get government working with contr ctors to se cure 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 terrorist attacks of 2001], the more people are asking about privacy,” he said.

In times of emergency, he suggested, people are willing to forgo privacy for the sake of security.

Kash is editor-in-chief of Government Computer News magazine.

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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