White House 2.0

What will it mean to have a CTO in the White House

3 min read

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.”

Instead, he says, the approach of Wikipedia or open-source software—in which many individual participants perform small tasks that accomplish big things, coordinated and enabled by online tools—could be the most transformative model of government a cabinet-level CTO could bring to the job.

”We’re at this really great time where people actually want to see something happen,” says Reich. ”The tools will just facilitate it and make it scalable and efficient.”

Perhaps the ultimate expression of crowdsourcing in the CTO discussion is the online election at the Web site ObamaCTO.org, run by the Seattle firm Front Seat. This Web site aggregates ideas for the Obama White House CTO’s top priorities and allows anyone to cast a ballot for his or her favorite idea. Recently, Internet accessibility and network neutrality was the top vote getter. Second was Internet privacy and the repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act, followed by the repeal of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

”A site like that is going to be skewed,” says Elizabeth Charnock, CEO of Cataphora, based in Redwood City, Calif., a company that specializes in ”digital sleuthing” for lawsuits and government investigations. Naturally, she says, more everyday Internet users will be voting on ObamaCTO.org than IT professionals.

But a White House CTO, she adds, could also be more like a secretary of agriculture—but for the IT industry instead of farmers. ”The other type of CTO is also looking at things from the perspective of a technology business,” she says. ”The moment you start to look at technology as a business, you immediately get into other areas.”

For instance, Charnock says, technology businesses in the United States are always looking for new and better talent. And reform of the U.S. work visa (H-1B) system, she says, should be a top priority for any government CTO who focuses on the private sector.

”That’s the great thing about ’CTO,’ ” she says. ”It can mean just about anything.”

About the Author

Mark Anderson is an author and science writer based in Northampton, Mass. In October 2008 he wrote for Spectrum Online about the bailout of the controversial physics experiment Gravity Probe B. In the December 2008 issue of IEEE Spectrum he reported on Google’s designs on social-network advertising.

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