Obama’s Quest for a Tech Czar

As the Obama administration begins to take shape, speculation is mounting that his could be the presidency that turns a corner in the government’s approach to technology–both its own use and the policies that govern the industry.

The President-elect signaled his intentions to get serious about tech during the campaign, when he put forward the most detailed policy agenda any candidate has ever produced.

Running point on that agenda will be a government CTO–sometimes referred to as a “technology czar,” and the first-ever position of its kind. But so far, the position has only been defined in broad strokes, and a host of questions remain–beyond the great guessing game of who Obama will tap for the job.

The Obama camp has given very little insight on where the position will fit into the government hierarchy, for instance. Citing the press policy of the transition team, an Obama spokesman declined to make a policy adviser available for comment for this report.

The job description on Obama’s Web site says that the CTO’s mission will be to “ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies, and services for the 21st century.” The policy agenda emphasizes the CTO’s role in leading an inter-agency effort to streamline the government’s technology initiatives, which has fueled speculation that the new position could see an expansion of the president’s Cabinet.

“If they can elevate this to a Cabinet position, I think that would be fine,” Jonathan Askin, a Brooklyn Law School professor and member of Obama’s tech-policy team, said in a recent television appearance. “The problem is we are existing in a government of silos. The FCC is clueless about what’s going on in the Department of Commerce.”

But is a Cabinet-level position really necessary for the CTO to cut through bureaucracy and advance Obama’s tech program?

“It’s all political–who’s in the Cabinet hardly matters anymore,” said Thomas Lipscomb, senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future. “It’s who’s in the White House and who’s got the President’s ear. Who would have thought Cheney would have had the influence that he did?”

To Lipscomb and others, it doesn’t matter whether the CTO ends up in the Cabinet, as a top-level White House aide, or even if the position gets slotted into the Office of Management and Budget–an office that also includes the government CIO Council–interagency forum tasked with streamlining and improving IT management across the government.

Instead, for the CTO to succeed, the position will need access to the president and the requisite funding to execute the agenda, they said.

“We know that this is a national priority of the administration. I’m assuming that they will give some priority, budget-wise, in terms of what they want to undertake,” said Martha Dorris, deputy associate administrator of the Government Services Agency’s Office of Citizen Services. “Based on what I’ve heard, they’ll probably reprioritize some of the spending.”

Among other things, Dorris’s division is charged with improving the ways that government agencies make information available to citizens, which includes training and working with Web managers at all levels of government to bring more government data online in a common format.

“We really believe in our mission of improving the delivery of service across the government and we believe in that the service we provide in the Web site,” Dorris said, referring to the GSA’s government portal, USA.gov. “We want to know what the citizens want and how they want it.”

In that sense, her division will likely work closely with the CTO to coordinate the grab-bag of e-government initiatives currently underway. GSA officials describe the current situation as fractious, with each agency taking its own approach both with its internal systems and with its citizen-facing technology efforts.

In addition to improving the accessibility of agencies’ own sites, one of the GSA’s initiatives is to establish a government presence on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, said Beverly Godwin, director of the GSA’s Content Management Division within the Office of Citizen Services.

“We don’t expect people to wake up every morning and want to go to a government Web site,” Godwin said. “We need to be going to where they are.”

At present, the government’s social media efforts are hamstrung by the sites’ terms of service agreements. Certain elements of the standard agreements those sites maintain are unacceptable to federal agencies, such as the indemnification requirements and the stipulation of legal jurisdiction, so government lawyers need to negotiate unique service policies before they will allow the staff to start Twittering or posting videos on YouTube.

The CTO could help coordinate those efforts, but that is really a microcosm of the tasks facing the individual who occupies the position, according to Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a site that focuses on the intersection of technology and government.

“The scope of responsibilities is ensuring that the entire apparatus of the executive branch of our government reboots itself into a 21st-century stance,” said Rasiej.

For a sense of how far-ranging that apparatus is, one need only consult with ObamaCTO.org, a Web site created by the Seattle firm FrontSeat.org for users to vote for their top priorities for the CTO.

As of this writing, the top item on the list was to “ensure the Internet is widely accessible and network neutral.” Other top priorities, in descending order by vote count, are: “Ensure our privacy and repeal the Patriot Act”; “Repeal the Digital Millennium Copyright Act” and “Open Government Data (APIs, XML, RSS).”

How much the CTO moves the needle on issues like Net neutrality, which Obama has already identified as a top priority, will depend on how much responsibility the position shoulders in shaping policy.

“I would assume it would have a high impact on outward technology policies, and it’s going to have a high impact on the technology industry,” GSA’s Dorris said.

She added that the first order of business would be “to work with the administration to identify its top priority and apply technology to its solution,” and that she expects the position to take a lead role in working with lawmakers and their staffers on the Hill to move legislation through Congress.

That suggests that the CTO could take a broader consulting role in a host of pressing issues that have traditionally been outside the realm of tech policy, such as the healthcare and the financial crisis.

After all, as Godwin pointed out, “Technology is just the tool, so how do you use that to achieve the priorities of the administration?”

In the meantime, Obama continues to break ground in his use of technology while shoring up his transition team with tech-savvy advisers.

On Saturday, Obama delivered the weekly radio address for the Democratic Party, but also posted the YouTube video on the Web site for his transition team, Change.gov.

Late last week, the president-elect named the team leaders for his agency review of the Federal Communications Commission. One is Susan Crawford, a law professor at the University of Michigan specializing in Internet and communications law, who recently finished a stint on the board of directors for the Internet governing body ICANN.

Joining Crawford will be Ken Werbach, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who served as a counsel in the FCC during the Clinton administration.

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com.

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