Cyber leaders must coordinate to avoid conflicts

Obama's CIO, CTO and security leader have defined roles

President Barack Obama, who campaigned on the promise to create a chief technology officer to oversee technology policy in his administration, has already doubled down on his pledge by creating two new positions for that purpose. And he appears poised to create a triple high tech threat before he's through.

Not surprisingly, there remains a little confusion about who's doing what with whom.

Two of the new offices are already certain: a chief information officer and a chief technology officer. Obama chose Vivek Kundra to fill the former in the Office of Management and Budget, where he will also serve as administrator of e-government initiatives. And on April 18 the president nominated Aneesh Chopra to fill the CTO post, which effectively fills the top vacancy in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. That position requires Senate confirmation.

Before long, the administration is widely expected to create a cybersecurity "czar," possibly within the National Security Council. Proposed legislation in Congress would require such an office. 

The distinct duties of each role are only just emerging. CIO Kundra’s mandate is to improve the ways the federal government uses technology and how that technology is purchased. CTO Chopra, on the other hand, will be in charge of propelling technology adoption outside government. If a cybersecurity position is created, that person will likely be charged with coordinating cybersecurity issues across government agencies, said Jim Flyzik, a technology consultant a former senior adviser to Tom Ridge in the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Any conflicts among the three offices should be easy to resolve because all three will be under the umbrella of the White House, said Mark Boster, chief operating officer of Platinum Solutions and former deputy assistant attorney general for information resources management at the Justice Department.

“The issues they will address require a lot of coordination and debate, and I think there is no reason to think any issues between them can’t be resolved,” Boster said. “If nothing else, it will bring issues to the forefront and force a dialogue, leadership and policy direction that will be useful.”

However, Boster said, the leaders should be wary about trying to run everything out of the White House. Rather, they should give agencies a level of autonomy to make technology decisions. “It is a long way from the White House to an individual agency and the business needs for a specific agency,” he said. “In my experience, the CIO needs to be close to the business and understand the business of an agency to be successful.”

In the end, Obama will have to carefully mark out each person's turf, agreed Patricia Titus, Unisys Federal’s chief information security officer and former chief information security officer at the Transportation Security Administration. “There could be some overlap, which could add confusion for agency-level CTOs, CIOs, and CISOs if the roles, responsibilities and accountability components are not clearly defined,” he said.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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