Transition Watch: Obama CTO needs clear authority, former feds say

While many people are speculating about who President-elect Barack Obama will pick as the first governmentwide chief technology officer, veterans of the federal information technology community are more concerned about the authority that person will hold.

Obama pledged during his campaign that he would appoint a governmentwide CTO to ensure that agencies have effective information technology policies, services and infrastructure. Obama has emphasized the importance of government transparency and technological interoperability.

The position description resembles a chief information officer’s, but the title is not as important as the position’s authority, said Jim Flyzik, president and founder of the Flyzik Group. While working at the Treasury Department, Flyzik was part of the first wave of CIOs in government and later was technology adviser to Gov. Tom Ridge in the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Whether the position is a CTO or CIO, the appointee’s critical responsibilities will be setting the vision, leadership and business strategy for the governmentwide efforts that Obama has talked about, he said.
What matters most is “how the job is defined and the amount of teeth behind the job to allow the job to get things done,” Flyzik said.

“The position is automatically going to have credibility and empowerment by the mere fact that it has the ear of the president,” he said. “The key will be if there is to be legislative authority around the job that gives the position power over money and resources to actually be able to effect change across all government,” he said.

The Clinton and Bush administrations both pursued governmentwide initiatives that required agencies to work together on projects such as modernization, e-government and collaboration efforts. But they often ran into problems getting Congress to provide funding, he said.

Mark Forman, principal at KPMG and the first administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget, said it is important that the Obama administration find a position within the White House organizational structure from which the CTO can provide effective leadership.

The CTO also needs budgetary and program funding authority — including the ability to block the allocation of funds — and a large enough staff to manage daily operations, Forman said.

“You take those three pieces together, and two-thirds of that — the power and the real world operational requirement — guides you to OMB,” Forman said. “The leadership tends to say it’s got to be in the White House.”

Obama needs to decide what the new position is intended to accomplish; specify his vision, goals and objectives for that position; “and then tease out whether it’s going to be a CTO or CIO that’s going to help provide that,” said Jonathan Breul, executive director of the IBM Business of Government and former senior adviser to OMB.

The efforts of the CTO/CIO should focus on the vision and goals, not IT — the technology should only help to meet those goals. “I think at some point we would need both, in the White House or in the Executive Office,” he said.

In addition to technical expertise, the CTO/CIO will need to have strong program knowledge and know how the government operates, Breul said. And the appointee will need strong management skills in running a huge organization and leading change within such an organization. Finally, that individual will need people skills.

Forman said whoever is chosen should have a clear vision about how technology fits within government. That requires an understanding of technology trends and government operations and power structures.
“None of this works if you don’t understand why things seem to be so slow in government and how to bust that mold,” he said.

He recommended that Obam choose someone who has been involved in a major transformation.

Breul suggested looking for CIO/CTO candidates from the ranks of state government, major colleges and universities, and large business organizations. Obama should also consider those who have previously worked in government, perhaps a deputy secretary or undersecretary who understands mission and program requirements and the need to match those with resources and people.

A CIO or CTO with those experiences is less likely to make missteps and has a greater opportunity to earn congressional support, Breul said. 

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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