Op-ed: Tech czar is maybe good, maybe bad
President-elect Barack Obama has said he would appoint a chief
technology officer -- a tech czar -- for the federal government. On the
surface, the idea suggests that cross government collaboration between
agencies and their data bases would occur, something agencies have
resisted to date.
A czar can be a good or a bad idea depending on the expectations and
responsibilities of the job. Assume that one of the czar’s
responsibilities will be to get the agencies in the Homeland Security
Department to cooperate with each other and share data. It is not
likely that the agencies such as the Secret Service, with access to the
president, and the Coast Guard, the oldest agency in the government,
will work easily with the other 26 agencies in DHS.
Again, assume that one of the czar's duties is to help the Internal
Revenue Service, DHS and the Federal Aviation Administration to
modernize. These are impossibly complex programs, and, even people who
have worked on these systems for 20 years do not understand all their
intricacies. A newly appointed tech czar, even with unusual
qualifications and daily support from the president and the director of
the Office of Management and Budget, could not make major contributions
to these and hundreds of similar systems in government.
question is whether the czar should be from industry or government.
Either choice has advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is
that a czar appointed from industry will have no chance to succeed
without deep knowledge about the government and its culture. At the
same time, someone from government who knows how it works could be more
successful, but will find it difficult to gain the respect of his or
her current peers.
Should existing chief information
officers be candidates? Unfortunately, most of the current CIOs have
marginal backgrounds and, to be generous, they are only somewhat
successful in their current jobs. Not one of the current CIOs is a good
candidate to take on the whole of government. In 1996, when 25
government and congressional officials worked on bill to create CIOsl,
we were unanimous that the law should specifically not create a CIO
sitting atop the entire government because such a role is impossible.
We concluded that a government-wide CIO would end up meddling in the
affairs of agencies while adding no real value to their programs.
a czar could have success building on Web 2.0 technologies. Obama has
strong experience in this sector of technology. He probably will
work to build on the technologies that his team used in the
presidential campaign to create the network of two million supporters
and raise gobs of money. This area, social networking, is open to
innovation in the government. A czar who focuses in this area will have
clear sailing because there is no competition at present.
networking does not address the key to managing government, which is
getting control of the transactions. However, no one person in a tech
czar job could ever do that, anyway.
It is recommended that
the tech czar avoid getting bogged down in the complex agency-run
legacy systems that operate the government programs; and, instead,
focus on untouched areas that directly serve the president's outreach
Frank McDonough led GSA’s then-Office of Information Technology
Policy. He has been a leader in watching how governments worldwide use
IT. He can be reached at [email protected].