Obama supporters downplay CTO's near-term role

The economic priorities of the incoming Obama administration may mean that fleshing out the role of a chief technology officer could become a lesser priority.

As supporters of President-elect Barack Obama in Washington try to downplay near-term expectations for his administration's chief technology officer, an Obama aide on Tuesday said reports of an imminent announcement are incorrect.

With nearly of all Obama's cabinet named, recent speculation has swirled around whether news about the CTO post would be next, with one report saying to expect an announcement on Wednesday. The member of Obama's transition team, who asked not to be named, said that would not happen.

Still unclear are key details: who will fill the role, and what, exactly, the CTO will be tasked with doing. One possibility is that the CTO could be involved with, or even lead, policy groups handling topics as wide-ranging as Net neutrality, health information technology, and cybersecurity. Another is that the job could be limited to overseeing federal technology efforts--an area that could certainly use some improvement .

Or the position may fall somewhere in between, involving guiding other agencies in their use of technology. Creating an entirely new cabinet position with robust jurisdiction--and addressing consequential challenges such as turf wars, bureaucratic reorganization, and the development of a unique mentality for the office--could be too much to handle while trying to create an economic stimulus package, said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

"It is not clear to me (that) they may try to do it all at once," Black said. "If they do, I think it can succeed, it will just take a degree of attention and focus that they might not want to dedicate at the outset, with this much going on."

Former InterActiveCorp executive and Obama technology transition team member Julius Genachowski has been considered a strong contender for the CTO role, though he is also seen as a top choice for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The Washington Post reported last month that Genachowski may be more interested in the FCC position because of the CTO's limited responsibilities.

"There does seem to be some belief (that) if he wants (the chairmanship), he'll get it," said David Kaut, a telecommunications, media, and tech policy analyst for the firm Stifel Nicolaus, who donated money to Obama. "The FCC is going to be the big player, when it comes to making and implementing policy, but depending on how much weight Obama wants to give the CTO, they could be a player as well."

The FCC may have immediate jurisdiction over issues like broadband deployment, Kaut said. While broadband deployment may not be a part of the stimulus package currently under development, Obama has indicated that it will be part of his plan for economic recovery.

"Technology seems to have fallen down the list of priorities, but I think they see it as a key to long-term competitiveness and growth," Kaut said. "The Democrats and Obama see a need for much more proactive policy to make broadband a driving force of U.S. competitiveness."

Other potential candidates for the CTO position have experience spanning government and industry, including Jeffrey Bezos, Amazon.com's CEO, and Blair Levin, managing director for Stifel Nicolaus, the former chief of staff for the FCC chair in the mid-1990s, and a member of Obama's technology transition team.

The transition team has also brought on Washington, D.C.'s own CTO, Vivek Kundra, as a technology policy adviser, and he's another potential candidate for the national CTO position.

Steve Moore, the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C., Economic Partnership, says Kundra's understanding of technology has been critical to stimulating the city's economic growth.

"The power behind social-networking sites--(Kundra is) taking that and plugging it into business," Moore said. "It's not just a cooler marketing tool; it's a fundamental change in the way you do things. Can that play nationally? I think that's the question all of us are asking."

 

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