Obama's CTO: Watch out for the turf wars

The Obama administration's chief technology officer could be one of those bureaucratic positions that ends up consumed by turf battles rather than making real progress against initiatives.

Dan Farber
4 min read

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is out of the running for the chief technology officer (CTO) position that the Obama administration is planning to create. In an interview with CNBC's Jim Cramer, Schmidt said, "I love working at Google and I'm very happy to stay at Google, so the answer is no." Schmidt will remain a close adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, but his first call to duty is Google.

Based on the job description below, it could be difficult to find a worthy candidate from the private sector willing to take on a task of such enormous scope in an environment known to chew up and spit out White House policy czars.

Obama will appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

The Obama administration's CTO job could be one of those bureaucratic positions that ends up consumed by turf wars rather than making real progress against initiatives. CNET News' Stephanie Condon notedthe overlaps, which could turn into conflicts, between a White House CTO and CTOs working in various agencies:

The jurisdiction of a CTO could overlap with other agencies or executive positions in areas such as innovation policy, cybersecurity, or intellectual property enforcement. To avoid those overlaps, the Obama team will have to decide, for instance, whether the CTO would focus on goals like making agencies more efficient or take on a broader agenda such as dictating policy.

Just creating and implementing a coherent technology plan and policy for the numerous agencies under the Department of Homeland Security is an incredibly daunting task for a CTO. The DHS Directorate of Science and Technology, for example, has a budget of $830 million. It has 250 projects in process and 50 percent of them are expected to fail, according to Jay Cohen, Under Secretary for Science and Technology for the DHS.

The Department of Homeland Security organizational chart. The DHS is trying to achieve information flow across 87,000 different federal, state, and local governmental jurisdictions. Department of Homeland Security

The Obama administration has a long list of tech initiatives (see below). The focus should be on having the best technical minds and management working on each initiative--the White House CTO as chief tech policy evangelist, inter-agency liaison and human capital recruiter.

  • Protect the Openness of the Internet
  • Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership
  • Protect Our Children While Preserving the First Amendment
  • Safeguard our Right to Privacy
  • Open Up Government to its Citizens
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century
  • Deploy Next-Generation Broadband
  • Promote American Businesses Abroad
  • Invest in the Sciences
  • Invest in University-Based Research
  • Make the R&D Tax Credit Permanent
  • Ensure Competitive Markets
  • Protect American Intellectual Property Abroad
  • Protect American Intellectual Property at Home
  • Reform the Patent System
  • Restore Scientific Integrity to the White House
  • Make Math and Science Education a National Priority
  • Improve and Prioritize Science Assessments
  • Address the Dropout Crisis
  • Pinpoint College Aid for Math and Science Students
  • Increase Science and Math Graduates
  • Lower Health Care Costs by Investing in Electronic Information Technology Systems
  • Invest in Climate-Friendly Energy Development and Deployment
  • Modernize Public Safety Networks
  • Advance the Biomedical Research Field
  • Advance Stem Cell Research
  • Speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit, HP CTO Shane Robison, who has been touted as a White House CTO candidate, believes that a White House CTO would need to focus on a few key tech initiatives and not just serve as an administrator or liaison between CTOs across the government.

    This approach to the White House CTO job makes the most sense in terms of being able to accomplish specific objectives. In addition, Obama is fielding his own technology council of private and public sector titans, as his predecessor did with his President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), to advise and help out on key issues.

    CBS News

    As the rookie U.S. senator who was catapulted into the White House on the back of the Internet, Obama knows that technology is a key enabler for his President 2.0 administration. He keeps a BlackBerry or iPhone on a holster on his hip, although his campaign Flickr photo library appears to devoid of pictures of Obama using his smartphone. (It must not yet be considered appropriate to show the president-elect text messaging.)

    The technology to accomplish his long list of goals exists, but the funding, expertise, focus and political will is lacking in many areas. Transforming the U.S. government technology infrastructure from a plodding battleship (outside of the NSA and a few other high-tech agencies) into a speedy, adaptable ship built for the Internet age isn't going to be solved in the Obama era. But great progress can be made if the White House CTO can recruit into agencies the kind of people who helped Obama transform the way electoral campaigns are run and stimulate young people to study science curriculums.