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Down To Business: New Federal CTO Must Focus On Substance

The Obama administration must sort the populist and special-interest tech issues from those most critical to the country's future.

Executive excesses and other forms of unchecked greed are symptoms of some of our nation's most devastating economic problems, but don't confuse populist reactions with substantive solutions.

The global financial system is near collapse not because Wall Street execs make too much money and float away from their failures under golden parachutes, but because those execs--with the government's urging and backing--issued far too many loans to people who couldn't afford them (and then blindly packaged and repackaged those loans). The U.S. auto industry is reeling not because Big Three executives live high on the hog, but because the industry is saddled with enormous capital, labor, and health care costs at a time when consumers aren't buying new cars. The U.S. deficit is out of control not just because of increased spending on defense, prescription drugs, and other discretionary programs, but because no one has the political courage to touch the entitlement programs that constitute the lion's share of the federal budget.

We may feel better that President Obama is capping compensation for execs at Wall Street firms that take bailout money, but how's that going to help those firms get their houses in order and lend more? We may get a hoot from seeing pampered senators grill pampered auto execs about their private jets and other perks, but how's that going to fix the industry's deep structural problems?

Yes, symbolic gestures are sometimes important. But when they become the main focus, they're a distraction. Worse, they can be antithetical to the broader mission. If one of the government's goals is to turn struggling financial institutions around and spur liquidity, why make it harder for them to attract the strongest leaders? (The execs who used to run those institutions are the ones who made all the bad decisions.) And do we really think U.S. automakers would fare better if their CEOs flew coach out of Wayne County Airport? Maybe the bigger question is this: Are the likes of Chrysler and Bear Stearns even worth "saving," or are they reaching the end of their commercial viability, much as former tech titans Data General, DEC, and Prime once did?

As Obama prepares to select a federal CTO, either at the Cabinet or a senior advisory level, the administration must sort the populist and special-interest tech issues from those most critical to the country's future. Should the CTO help set industrial policy for broadband, green, and other tech movements, or is it the CTO's role to help create a tax and regulatory environment where the private sector can lead the next wave of innovation? How much should the federal CTO focus on internal government IT matters: security, interagency information sharing, standards, e-government, and the like?

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InformationWeek asked a few dozen of the industry's leading thinkers--public- and private-sector CIOs, tech vendor CEOs, entrepreneurs, and others--what they think the fed CTO's priorities must be. Their views, along with broader-based reader survey results and our own analysis, comprise the comprehensive coverage that begins with the article: Federal CTO Agenda: Our Advice To Obama.

It's a national conversation that must start now. Let's make it a substantive one. Join in.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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