Barack Obama looking for federal CTO

President-elect Barack Obama's plan to build a Google-enabled government began modestly this week with its new Web site, which includes the means to apply for a job in the new administration.


President-elect Barack Obama's plan to build a Google-enabled government began modestly this week with its new Web site, which includes the means to apply for a job in the new administration.

One of the people this administration plans to hire a CTO to manage federal IT. The person selected will be the nation's first chief technology officer.

From the job description, the CTO job does not sound exciting, and may well have been copied from an IT management 101 textbook. It says the job of the CTO will be to lead federal IT and "ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

Paul Strassman, a former CIO of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Defense Department's Director of Defense Information, said what the administration has to do first is to define its management issues and information policy and then the technology will follow. "The question is --what are the objectives that are is he trying to achieve?" Strassman said.

One thing that Obama does want is what has been called a Google-enabled government. That involves improving the transparency and access to the vast oceans of government data, in part, by moving this data into universally accessible formats. Many federal agencies have put data online, but use different formats.

And who will be the CTO to lead this effort? The media rumor mill has cited just about every single big name in tech, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who met with Obama Friday as a member of the new administration's economic advisory team; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.

Among the people on the transition team helping Obama select a CTO is Sonal Shah, head of global development initiatives at Google, and Julius Genachowski, the co-founder of LaunchBox Digital, a Washington-based firm that helps start-up businesses.

Whether someone on the level of Ballmer or Schmidt would give up their day jobs for the frustrations of dealing with federal agencies is doubtful.

The White House may control the IT budget, but the federal government agencies have their own CIOs, management, methods and turf. The power of any CTO is limited, said Dave Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief technologist at the FCC.

"Government agencies can drag their feet when they are being pulled in directions they don't want to go," said Farber.

An example of how complicated relations with the White House can be: When Farber was at the FCC during the Clinton presidency, he said he was invited to a meeting with then vice president Al Gore. FCC officials initially told Farber not to go, and "that the White House cannot tell you to show up there, and we're an independent agency." But after Farber said the message was addressed to him as a professor, the response from FCC higher-ups was: "Good -- go, tell us what's going on."

A federal CTO will function more like a facilitator -- someone who can set a general direction, said Farber. But it will be critical for the person in that position to have access to the president if he/she is to have real authority, he said. Obama's appointment will also need a lot of technical credibility and ability to coordinate among agencies.

This ability to coordinate and work with varying semi-independent agencies, is something Karen Evans, as well as her predecessors, has done. Evans, who is considered the de facto federal CIO, has an official title of administrator of the office of electronic government and information technology, has used her role to push agencies to standardize, increase online capabilities and improve security. Sometimes that means striking at the right opportunity.

In 2007, the White House used the possibility to that some agencies might move to Windows Vista, to insist on standard security configurations for Vista and XP and required software vendors to ensure their products were shipped with those configurations. "If we don't take and seize upon this opportunity to standardise, a thousand flowers will bloom, and we'll be back to where we were," said Evans, in an earlier interview.

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