Federal CTO Wishlist


Obama’s promise to appoint a federal CTO has created a frenzy of speculation, especially among those concerned with privacy, security, government management, intellectual property, national Internet policy, and many others, including the transparency community. The discussion has become a Rorschach test of sorts, leading civic advocates of all kinds to project their priorities onto the soon-to-be established office.

Here’s what we’ll be looking for: A small-d democratic visionary: The CTO should be someone who has a vision of how the Internet and related technological advances can involve Americans in their government again, improve the effectiveness of government, and make the democratic process more engaging and participatory. He or she also must have the ability to spread that vision across government and with the larger public, by making the work and data of government more open, available, and transparent.

A balanced appointee: The CTO should have competence both as a technologist and a manager, since the CTO must understand the underlying technology to achieve the goals outlined above, as well as have the managerial clout to implement them. While a solid combination of these distinct skills is probably hard to come by, they’re both necessary for setting a new national course for government to use technology to achieve public information and engagement ends.

A strong office: The CTO’s office could be any number of places within the administration, and its location will determine the amount of authority a CTO can wield. We’re looking for real leadership and centralized authority within the executive, with the clout and presence necessary to coordinate technology usage and policy government-wide. The appointee should work closely with the President, and have the ability to act with the force of his authority, with reliable funding, staff, and a strong mandate for reform.

Specialized staff: Though the deputies presumably working under the CTO will likely be announced later, their specialized expertise should reflect the variety of challenges the CTO will face. Sunlight is looking to see staff in the CTO’s office dedicated to creating a more transparent government, starting with President-Elect Obama’s promises to make crucial data about ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying far more accessible online.

An interactive role: The CTO should lead, by example, the government’s efforts to cultivate the public interactions by which technology policy is best developed. Mailing lists, contests, blogs, standards bodies, and coordinative task forces have all been deployed successfully in the past. The CTO’s office should be our best example of taking advantage of public expertise and enthusiasm, by using the same technologies and best practices that can transform the rest of government.


Change We Can Believe In, (p. 88):

Appoint a National Chief Technology Officer

Barack Obama will use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. To that end, he 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 twenty-first 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

New York Times piece mentioning Obama’s expected announcement tomorrow.

UPDATE: via nextgov:

According to the Obama transition team, they have no plans to announce who may fill the CTO position on Wednesday. According to senior reporter Jill R. Aitoro:

“That report is wrong, there is no CTO announcement on Wednesday,” said Nick Shapiro, transition spokesman in an email correspondence with NextGov.com. He confirmed also that the person would not be named tomorrow either. Beyond that, no details were provided about when the announcement might be made, and other members of the transition team did not respond to inquiries.

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  • I’m surprised this post doesn’t make mention of http://ideas.obamacto.org/ a website which aims to gauge how the public sees the role of Obama’s CTO. I think the first priority of the CTO should be to see how many parts of government IT infrastructure are developed redundantly and outsourced to be developed as a proprietary system rather than developed once as the publicly-funded public-domain open-source software that they should be. This goes hand in hand with, and furthers, the efforts that have been made to standardize datatypes and api interoperability. The CTO could also likely learn a lot from the Estonian government, possibly the most adeptly wired government in the world: everyone in the country has access to free wifi, they had online voting in 2007, and will have voting by mobile phone in 2011. You can see some of their accomplishments at http://www.epractice.eu/document/3327 and a presentation of their governments IT infrastructure at http://www.valitsus.ee/?id=5450

  • I would like to add in the Political savvy to get things done.

    I’m not sure how many business style CTO’s are used to the level of Political savvy that is required to get different arenas of govt and the public to work together.

    I also think it is important that the leader is open in regards to technology based ideologies such as not an MS, Mac or Linux zealot.

    Of course you know me John – I am sure hoping the CTO is really into open data standards as I think that will greatly help in the transparency realm :-)


  • I don’t think there is anything more important than undertaking a Manhattan-like online project to give the People a voice, allow them to speak, and most importunately, to be accurately be heard.

    The project must be run separately from the major political parties although closely identified with the left, independent, and right political parties.

    Transparency would be a must requiring all polling results to be verifiable. Under such a project, effective two-way communication between each participant and their elected representatives at the local, state and national levels would be imperative.

    Of course, the devil would be in the details, but the result would be a strengthening of our democracy in the new era of the Age of the Internet.

    ex animo

  • here we go again…..thanks Ronnie R. The instant, nay, the nano-instant there is a hint of a new department in the federal government, the wimps bring out the crying towels and the doomsday thinking…….for what?

    The people who SHOULD know about these things should be brought to a meeting and after a few hours, decide what the country needs in the way of technology handling. The girley men in Washington will do what THEY think we need and stall all attempts to START a program WITH conditions and controls. But, START SOMETHING!!!

    The American public is so sick of congress fiighting with each other across the aisle that we want to vomit right in their collective faces.

    START SOMETHING with rules in place to make changes as needed, but, START SOMETHING!!!

  • Joshua Gay

    I also think that a CTO should understand technology from the point of view of the individual citizen. If technology is going to play a bigger role in our government and in our lives, then who, what, why, when, and how people can use a given technology is a matter of liberty. I hope that our next CTO understands and values technology that carries more freedoms than restrictions to its users.

  • Interesting view of what the nation’s CTO role should be, except that I wonder if we’re at nomenclature odds here. What’s been described is a very important role, but not precisely that of a CTO but rather a CIO or perhaps CITO (Chief Information Technology Officer).

    Maybe there is some need for clarification on purpose. If it is more a Chief Policy role for the Administration, that’s one thing. If the role is intended to be a working position, actually over-seeing the impact of technology on government, then it certainly is more likely a CITO role.

    Said differently, if what we’re after (or more correctly, the Obama Administration is looking for) is a a true Chief TECHNOLOGY Officer to over-see the impact of and policy for all technological impac ton government, then this would seem to have to be more of an “office” with someone sufficiently versed across a spectrum of domains — a generalist at best. This CTO’s office would then likely have to include a number of Technology Specialists addressing all aspects of “technology” as it applies, and that seem to me to include a wide range of domains and not limited to information.

    I suspect the role is intended to be more directed at the application, impact, and opportunity of technology on governing the country. And for that, by and large, the largest impact will come in the form of information technology – hardware, software, telecommunications, and the like. This is probably a CIO and not a CTO per se.

  • I think, being that this is a new post, that the candidate must have ‘star power’. At some point in the future, when the department is well regarded, there will be more time for technocrats.

    What is needed now is somebody that bureaucrats want to know.

    I would nominate Tim Berners-Lee. He doesn’t have the industry experience to really do a solid job, but he can start the process for the next person. He is a luminary and we need one of those first.