Federal CTO To Have Broad Influence

Two key jobs await the CTO: Giving the tech sector what it needs to thrive, and making sure agencies use IT well.
The tech industry's eyes are on the White House, anticipating President Obama's nomination of the country's first federal CTO.

Having indicated that he will look to technology to help solve the nation's myriad socioeconomic problems, Obama likely will focus the CTO on two areas: ensuring that the tech sector gets what it needs from the government in the form of R&D money, tax incentives, regulatory relief, and direct funding; and ensuring that government agencies do a better job of evaluating, deploying, integrating, and supporting IT.

It's still unclear how much authority the CTO will have. There has been some talk of it being a Cabinet-level post, but the White House hasn't specified; the CTO could serve in an advisory capacity.

Either way, the CTO will need a seat at the table during policy and budget discussions. "It's going to help in terms of how quickly the government is going to be able to implement and ramp up IT solutions," says Jeremy Potter, an analyst with Input, a consulting firm.

Both the government and the tech industry stand to benefit from incorporating IT expertise into discussions about employment, R&D, alternative energy, education, green infrastructure, and other issues. For example, the House of Representatives has proposed $1 billion in training and re-employment services for 270,000 dislocated workers. Some of that money will be spent on technology for job centers, schools, and other training.

A CTO could oversee additional funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and similar institutions. And a CTO could have some say in standards for the construction of green data centers. Then there are the more obvious IT-oriented goals of moving toward electronic health records, expanding broadband Internet access, and addressing privacy.

The Internet Presidency
Obama's pioneering use of the Web and other technologies.
The White House has said the CTO will focus on using technology to improve communications between government and citizens, and to enhance network security. It also has stated that the person will coordinate interagency efforts to select best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

Federal agency CIOs now collaborate through the Chief Information Officers Council, which falls under the Office of Management and Budget. It's still unclear how the federal CTO will slot into that structure; the extent of the CTO's authority and jurisdiction will determine how smoothly the government is able to promote interoperability.

The person who fills the role--names floated include District of Columbia CTO Vivek Kundra, Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt--is expected to be a champion for the tech industry, too.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Lando

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