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What Obama's CTO Should Do Wed 26 Nov 08

Here's a list of issues to focus on, including data security and growing our tech workforce.

President-elect Obama's announcement the he will appoint the country's first chief technology officer (CTO) has caught the attention of the IT world. It has a lot of people excited and has generated a lot of speculation over who he might name as the nation's first CTO. I think this is a great start, but I hope the new CTO takes advantage of the opportunity and expands on his defined role.

The brief job description states that the role of the CTO is "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 inter-agency 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."

As defined, the CTO's role is focused internally, concerned primarily with the mechanics of IT--the hardware and software. This isn't surprising given that Silicon Valley was a big Obama supporter--the same Silicon Valley that sold us all that expensive hardware and software that would (supposedly) miraculously solve all of our problems. No doubt Valley companies are hoping for similar opportunities with the new administration; they have probably been using this to push their agendas.

Achieving the CTO's goals will be difficult. We've seen a number of government agencies try this unsuccessfully in the past at great cost. Government bureaucracies are very resistant to change, and if changes are not done properly, we may end up combining a number of fragmented bureaucracies into a new one that is even more bloated and inefficient. But for anyone that has had to deal with the government, I'm sure any progress is welcome.

Rather that focusing solely on the internal mechanics, I'd suggest that the new CTO focus externally on some strategic IT issues facing the country. As in the corporate world, the new CTO could fall into the trap of thinking that running the IT operations efficiently is the critical measure of success. While important, the real measure should be "value" (addressing strategic issues) moreso than "cost management" (efficiencies and best practices).

This is a fantastic opportunity to use the CTO's new bully pulpit to start the discussion on these issues and to also have true technical expertise in helping craft legislation on technology. Let's not squander this opportunity by focusing on our tools; the CTO should focus on the issues that affect people every day.

There are a number of important issues facing both the American public and business that solid technology-based leadership can play a critical role in solving. These include:

  • Privacy: Data like our medical and financial records, what Web sites we visit and what we buy online are all stored in computer databases somewhere. Who can access this information and how it can be used are of great concern to everyone.
  • Identity theft: With our lives stored digitally, the damage from identity theft can be disastrous. How can the government help protect us and reduce this threat?
  • Data security: Securing data is a very important but broad issue. It involves the obvious issues of data protection from loss, theft or hacking and controlling who has access. It also involves policymaking on what requirements for data security corporate America must follow. Computer viruses and spam also present significant threats--at what point should these be a national concern?
  • Technology workers: Getting skilled technology employees is a vital concern for American industry. How should the H-1B visa situation be handled? It would be great to see this addressed from a technology perspective rather than just one of political ideology. At the same time, what can we do to "grow our own" technology workforce by encouraging people to study IT in college and to come enter the technology field when they graduate?
  • Offshoring: Offshoring makes economic sense for many companies, based on their individual situations, but what are the national implications on a collective basis? Would we be comfortable if the bulk of the energy, medical or financial companies offshored most of their technology developments and support?
  • Copyright/digital rights: Computer technology has made it extremely easy to download content, forward it and modify it. How are the rights of the creator and user properly balanced in this new environment? Copyright laws may be out of date or simply don't address certain activities. How should they be modified?
  • Net neutrality: As service and content providers try to control their markets and keep their customers captive, there may be a tendency to restrict or control access to the Internet or content to help. How should we best keep access open without censorship or control?

These issues are not just technical; they involve many disciplines and constituencies. However, the new CTO has the opportunity to take the lead in these. Current laws and programs do address these to some extent, but they are, in many cases, woefully out of date with today's technology. Government policy and laws have simply not been able to keep pace with technology. I'm more interested in having a technology-based voice in the government help on these issues than I am on having someone fine-tune the mechanics of the government's IT operations.

The Obama has identified many of these topics in his plan. I strongly urge him to use his new CTO to tackle them.

In terms of whom he should name, I'm happy to be a contrarian and hope it is not someone from Silicon Valley . We need someone more involved in the issues than the software and hardware.

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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