Published November 21, 2008
As America counts down to President-elect Barack Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, the tech industry is waiting to see whether the new president will name, as promised, a "chief technology officer" for the United States.
Before the election, Obama's campaign Web site laid out an ambitious plan for tech policy, proclaiming that the CTO would "ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century."
According to technology-policy advocate Andrew Rasiej, such a change would be historic.
"This is not a token idea," Rasiej told FOXNews.com. "Based on the inclusion of the role of the CTO in the tech policy itself, it seems that the Obama administration will take such a role very seriously."
The position would likely have bipartisan support, says David Kralik, director of Internet strategy for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's grassroots group, American Solutions for Winning the Future.
"It would be very difficult to find people on the other side of the aisle to oppose this," said Kralik, who also blogs for Techrepublican.com.
"I don't see it as a Democratic and Republican issue," said Deven Desai, associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, who has blogged about the CTO proposal.
Change.gov, Obama's official Web site as president-elect, states further that the CTO's job will be "to ensure the safety of our networks and 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."
Both sites also mention a permanent tax credit for research and development, protecting intellectual property and reforming the patent system — all subjects dear to the tech industry.
Silicon Valley is already acting as if the CTO will be in charge of all of that, with such big names as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy and Google CEO Eric Schmidt being tossed around as the man who would lead America to tech salvation — though Schmidt, for one, has said he's not interested.
Also on the speculation list are Google Vice President Vint Cerf, often called "the father of the Internet," former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, now a tech adviser to the global management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates, who gave up his day job this year to focus on philanthropy.
At a discussion on tech policy last month sponsored by the nonpartisan New American Foundation, Hundt mentioned universal broadband access as one area the Obama administration could focus on.
Other goals the Obama team has mentioned include digital privacy for individuals and "Net neutrality," or the notion that the government should guarantee that all data moving across the Internet be treated equally by private carriers.
Yet it's not clear whether the broader issues would be part of the CTO's domain, or if he or she would be just a high-powered helpdesk guy making sure all federal agencies use the same software.
An Obama spokesman who didn't want to be named would say only that no decisions regarding the CTO position had been made since the job description was posted in September.
He also said there was no indication that the position would be Cabinet-level, as some tech pundits have been speculating.
A new Cabinet position would have to be created by Congress, and the head of the department confirmed by the Senate.
The CTO may more likely be an executive appointee, akin to the national security adviser, who serves at the president's behest and wouldn't need to go before the legislative branch.
Nonetheless, Rasiej sees Obama's attention to technology as having a large impact.
"This not an idle policy perspective, nor is it a tipping of the hat to BlackBerry users," he said. "We're talking about a wholesale reboot of the entire bureaucracy and finally putting it on a 21st-century platform."
"I think Obama is smart for creating this position," said Kralik, noting that social networking and the Internet will be critical to the new administration's success. "I think that he needs someone that thinks at the speed of technology and not at the speed of government."
Kralik said he feels the CTO should be more of a "chief transformational officer" than a chief technology officer, and is necessary for the government to be able to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
He cites Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, as an example of how the government could be more efficient and transparent.
"Every budget ought to be searchable and online," he said.
Rasiej thinks the CTO would "review every single federal-agency [technology-related] rule process, policy, spending and goals and ensure that 21st-century thinking is applied across the board."
Kralik noted that the government operates in the reverse of Moore's Law, which states that computer chips constantly get faster and cost less. Government instead always gets slower and costs more.
He says that for the government to "think more Silicon Valley and less Washington, D.C., it should emulate the communicative elements of MySpace and Facebook, the precise RFID wireless technology of Wal-Mart and Target, and the on-time efficiency of FedEx and UPS."
But David Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and former chief technologist at the FCC, is skeptical about both the job and the person taking it.
He doesn't see a CEO taking the CTO post, because he or she simply may not have much power in the administration.
"It's a funny position for people who have demonstrated getting things done," he said. "If they go in trying to operate the way they would in a company, they'll probably get frustrated."
Farber said this may explain why Google's Schmidt doesn't want the job. (A representative for Google declined to comment, deferring to Schmidt's previous public statements.)
"If it's the equivalent of a CTO, I don't see how you pull that off in the U.S. government," Farber said. "There are a lot of loose agencies with specialized problems, so it's not clear that the job can be much more than a coordinator."
To Farber, a candidate with a background in academic administration might be a better fit.
"If it's really about coordination, my own personal recommendation would be an academic — a former dean, a provost, on the grounds that their job is to coordinate," he explained.
Meanwhile, law professor Desai stressed the importance of the CTO to be objective.
"They should not be an advocate for Silicon Valley, but you can find someone from there that could be a fantastic fit," he said.
Other experts view the position as a positive development.
At the recent Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, top Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, who's openly backing Bill Joy for the job, called the post "a great idea, and it's long overdue."
Rasiej sees the creation of the post as a significant step forward in government policy on technology.
"Who the person is is not nearly as important as where that person sits in the Obama administration," Rasiej said. "I think the key issue is whether or not this person has the ear of the president and has the authority to implement technological 21st-century thinking on long-intractable problems and 20th-century federal bureaucracies and processes."