23 December—As of late last week, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama had filled all the established cabinet positions and high-profile bureaucratic posts for the incoming administration. But one new post, much talked about, is still empty. During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to appoint the country’s first cabinet-level chief technology officer.
Considering the Obama campaign’s innovative use of computer and Internet technology—from a Facebook-like campaign Web site to the pervasive use of campaign short-message-service text messaging and YouTube viral videos—many technologists are expecting the Obama administration to usher in an age of tech-savvy government, a veritable ”White House 2.0.” But the details of such plans, as well as an actual job description for the CTO, have been subject to vigorous debate among both technology and government experts.
For starters, it’s unclear how the CTO’s mission would be different from that of present-day technology officers in the executive branch, such as the members of the Chief Information Officers Council, established in 1996 by an executive order from President Bill Clinton.
Brian Reich, principal of the Cambridge, Mass., technology consulting firm EchoDitto, served in the Clinton White House as briefing director to Vice President Al Gore from 1999 to 2001. Reich says that the Obama campaign’s use of CTO as a title may be misleading.
”I’m not sure there is a title,” Reich says. ”I’m not sure it’s CTO or director of social media. I don’t think it’s necessarily a cabinet position either.” The job, he believes, is to transform the way all the departments do their job.
If any single revolutionary tech idea seeps into Washington, D.C., culture with the next administration, Reich says, he hopes it will be ”crowdsourcing.” Distributed solving of big problems via the Internet, he says, is a paradigm whose time has come.
”We’ve gotten to a point where there aren’t that many ideas that are able to filter up into government,” he says. ”The media has [in previous administrations] been a gatekeeper to the president. They’ve been selecting the stories and issues that we’re all supposed to care about.”