Obama's search for a CTO

As President-elect Barack Obama's transition team assembles an administration, it could look to one of its own to fill the role of chief technology officer.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
6 min read

By naming some technology executives to his transition team--especially former IAC executive Julius Genachowski--President-elect Barack Obama is signaling that he's likely to follow through with his proposal to appoint a chief technology officer to the White House.

The person in this new position--and possibly a new White House technology office staff--could be given the directive to create new levels of transparency and access to government agencies, or to guide policies that spur innovation and growth. Technology experts within the Beltway warn, however, that a CTO would have to avoid potential pitfalls such as creating new spending for ineffectual projects, running into conflict with other agencies, or simply becoming nothing more than a symbolic office.

Still, creating the position would generally be seen as a positive step.

"The fact that this is difficult is, in some ways, an example of why we might need a CTO," said Alan Davidson, head of Google's Washington office. "There is no one place for unified technology leadership in our executive branch right now."

A tech-friendly transition team
The overall composition of Obama's transition team indicates he may be serious about implementing new uses of technology in the executive branch and directing more cohesive policy making. Genachowski was an adviser to two Federal Communications Commission chairmen during the Clinton administration--Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard--and is the founder of start-up incubator LaunchBox Digital. Genachowski chaired the group that helped shape Obama's Tech and Innovation Plan, in which Obama calls for a CTO.

Genachowski is considered to be a strong contender for the CTO position.

Former IAC executive Julius Genachowski is part of Barack Obama's transition team and may be under consideration to fill the role of CTO. LaunchBoxDigital

"Julius is an example of the kind of person who has both real-world technology and business experience and would be effective in Washington," Davidson said. "He's a good model of the type of person one might look for as a CTO or as another technology leader within the administration."

The transition team also includes Sonal Shah of Google.org and Donald Gips, vice president of corporate strategy and development for Level 3 Communications. Many Obama advisers come out of the Clinton administration, and Gips, among others, specifically served Vice President Al Gore. Given Gore's emphasis on the development of information technology, those advisers are well poised to integrate technology into the way the government functions and creates policy, some have said.

Gips served as Gore's chief domestic policy adviser in the late 1990s. William Daley, another member of the Obama transition team, served as secretary of commerce from 1997 to 2000 and was chairman of Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

Obama's transition team is headed by John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff, considered in Washington to be a competent figure who is comfortable with technology issues in his own right.

The team has already shown its commitment to embracing technology by launching the site Change.gov.

"Because of the impact the Internet had in the election, we're expecting to see the incoming administration embrace a lot of those tools, and that will be important for laying the groundwork once the administration takes office," Davidson said.

Beyond this transition team, Obama may look for advice on technology policy--or for a CTO--from the cadre of technology advisers he maintained during his campaign. Obama's technology advisers, both formal and informal, included government types, academics, and people from the high tech industry.

Former FCC chairs Hundt and Kennard serve as advisers, as do Michael Nelson, the former director of Internet technology and strategy at IBM; Daniel Weitzner, an MIT computer scientist and a policy director for the World Wide Web Consortium; Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark; Google CEO Eric Schmidt; and a number of others.

Will a new cabinet position change anything?
Some inside Washington have said the Obama administration will be a vast improvement from the Bush administration, which has been criticized for neglecting technology as an issue and a tool. President Bush has not completely ignored the issue, however. As part of its cybersecurity efforts encouraged by the administration, the Homeland Security Department is conducting a complete overhaul of government networks to make them more secure. The Office of Management and Budget has also emphasized funding to keep information technology secure and up to date.

The OMB, through the Presidential E-Government Initiatives, has also served the public through sites like Grants.gov, which allows people to more easily find and apply for federal grants, and USAJobs.gov, the federal online recruitment service.

Moreover, the appointment of a CTO in an Obama administration does not ensure any improvements.

"The idea of a chief technology officer is a fine one, but I think it's more complex than that," said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "It's not enough to make an office--the use and understanding of technology needs to permeate every agency."

Yet someone with the right credentials and reputation could make that happen, Black said.

"It's going to take a person with a liberal background, with skills across the field," he said. "Somebody close to Obama certainly helps."

Looking to industry for help
Speculation has circulated that Obama could consider a well-known executive like Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos or Google's Schmidt for the role of CTO; however, at least one Washington insider said it is highly unlikely Schmidt would leave his position at Google for the job.

Some have speculated Google CEO Eric Schmidt may be up for the job of CTO, but others--including Schmidt himself--say that's unlikely.

Davidson noted that Schmidt has said he has no interest in the role. Davidson did not rule out the possibility of another Washington outsider taking the job, though.

"There's a balance that will need to be struck in looking for people who have real world technology experience and can be effective in Washington," he said. "There are people in Washington who fit that role and people outside of Washington who fit that role."

Others such as James Lewis, director and senior fellow in the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned against the idea.

"We've seen lots of times where people have brought in gurus from the high-tech community, and they give up after a year because they're frustrated," Lewis said. "Knowing how the government works is important."

Even so, Lewis said, implementing technology policy cannot be left to policy wonks from Washington without industry advice, Lewis said.

"Innovation's the secret sauce of the year, but we need to figure out what exactly that means," he said. "Giving the Commerce Department more money will not do anything for innovation, yet that's one of the things we hear."

Defining the CTO's mission
The executive branch will likely have an onslaught of technology policy proposals to consider, Lewis said, which could range from a national broadband commitment to the establishment of a central office for research and development funds. Some may be good, but others could be a waste of time and money.

"The transition team needs to take a really hard look at the ideas that are going to be put forward because most of them aren't going to work," Lewis said.

Those familiar with the transition process have said it will work "quickly, but not hastily." Before a CTO is chosen, Obama and his team will have to decide how to structure the White House.

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.

Innovation policy could intrude on turf covered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, many noted, and policy covering digital copyright law might conflict with another cabinet position Obama will have to fill--the position of intellectual property enforcement coordinator, which was established by the recently-signed Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act

Foreseeing a battle in the copyright world between Hollywood and the tech industry, Black said it would be ideal for the Obama administration to include "somebody who can recognize there is significant collateral damage to other legitimate interests and industries" by some copyright positions taken by the entertainment industry.

"They don't have to be anti-Hollywood, they just have to be not blinded by an extreme position," he said. "I'd actually be very happy if we just had somebody who was very balanced and open."

President-elect Obama may also consider appointing a completely separate cybersecurity chief, as is likely to be recommended by the CSIS Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency.

"The commission said (cybersecurity) was a national security issue, and that's kind of out of the orbit of the CTO," said Lewis, who chairs the commission. "There's some overlap, but I think the CTO's role is kind of orthogonal to the cyber mission."