Should We Worry About A National CTO?

from the Czars-are-bad,-mmkay? dept

Here in D.C. the town’s collective post-election hangover is lifting, and folks are beginning to ponder exactly what the new administration will mean for their respective corners of the world. Those of us working in technology are no exception, and a new blog post by Wayne Crews on has renewed discussion of President-elect Obama’s proposal for a national CTO.

Unfortunately, Crews’ post doesn’t offer much insight — he simply conflates “CTO” with “czar” (as in “drug czar”) and then decides that the track record of such positions means the initiative is a bad idea. As Jerry Brito noted in comments at the TLF, this rhetorical sleight of hand is a bit dishonest. The Obama campaign’s stated intention is for the CTO to “ensure the safety of our networks and will 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.” That’s considerably less expansive than what Crews seems to fear.

Our own Tim Lee has weighed in on the idea before, defining two possible roles for a national CTO: one as a coordinator of federal systems (as described above) and another as an adviser on tech policy. As Tim notes, it’s important that President-elect Obama receive smart counsel on tech policy — and the Obama campaign’s association with people like Vint Cerf is encouraging on this score. But again, it’s not clear that such advising is within the purview of the CTO role as Obama conceives it.

So what about the other function? Tim isn’t enthusiastic about it, noting that the government probably already achieves what economies of scale it can, meaning that centralizing IT decisions would only result in reduced flexibility for individual agencies.

Speaking as a former government IT contractor, I’m not so sure about that. In my experience, IT procurement decisions within agencies are played very, very safe. The person making the purchasing decision is generally operating in CYA mode: the purchase is being made with an eye toward their career. There are no stock options or revenue sharing to consider — no upside — so the primary goal is to make decisions that minimize the potential for blame.

In practice this means buying from huge, established vendors, even when doing so isn’t really appropriate. I’ve seen projects buy massively expensive Oracle licenses when MySQL or PostgreSQL would’ve worked just fine, and would have cost far fewer dollars and man-hours. Why waste those resources? Because Oracle was seen as safe (particularly since Sun hadn’t yet acquired MySQL AB). It’s the same old problem that slowed private industry’s adoption of open-source software, except without the profit motive to push things along.

It’s possible to mount a justification for such a cautious approach by government, but “efficiency” isn’t likely to be part of that argument. And here’s where a national CTO really could make a difference: the high-profile, appointed nature of the position calls for a big name — someone with influence and a proven record of innovative ideas — rather than a cowering careerist. And that, in turn, might embolden the don’t-blame-me CTOs and CIOs further down the federal ladder. Desktop Linux springs to mind as the sort of technology that could save huge amounts of taxpayer money, but which is probably too intimidating for most agencies to undertake without direction from above.

What would this mean for you, me and the larger tech industry? In all likelihood, not very much. It’s not as if open-source technologies need the government’s stamp of approval to prove their viability; and every indication is that the important regulatory decisions that affect our industry will continue to be made at places like the FTC and FCC. A national CTO will be irrelevant to most of us, so time spent fretting over the office is probably time wasted. But that doesn’t mean that such a position isn’t a good idea — saving tax dollars usually is, and there’s reason to think that a national CTO could do just that.

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Comments on “Should We Worry About A National CTO?”

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TriZz says:


I could get behind the notion of a national CTO if it’s the guy from Google who’s been campaigning for Obama. I don’t remember if I read it here or elsewhere, but there was some talk of one of the Google CEO’s filling that position and I’d be “for it”.

It’d be nice to have some “Don’t be evil” in the government…somewhere.

Shane C says:

Linux is already in use

Speaking as a former government contractor myself, I agree with most of what you’re saying in the CYA department. While I was working for the Feds, the most often heard excuse why a new procedure / technology / whatever, could NOT be used was “we’ve never done it that way before.”

I will say that at least in the Unclassified Sensitive, and more secure areas, SE Linux is widely used, and encouraged.


Phillip D (profile) says:

Other CTO Duties

From what understood of the position (mostly from political blogs) the CTO was also going to be responsible for pushing the adoption of technologies that wouldn’t necessarily be used by these agencies. For the most part these would be things that would fit under Obama’s goals of transparency and efficiency like a greater use of blogs and wikis and such when appropriate. I also think he was going to be involved in projects like getting video (streaming?) of cabinet meetings online and making sure there’s a forum for public comments on bills before the president signs them. That being said, I’m not sure where the lines of responsibility end because a lot of that came up under the general technology discussions.

Scott says:

The other thing to think about with DoD and intelligence agencies is that a lot of their networks are classified. Coming from the contractor world it is extremely hard to get the cheaper/free tech (mySQL type apps) on gov’t sponsored classified networks. Each individual network has its own security policies and trusted (mainly US/Allies) vendors with proven security (read: $$$$$) are just easier to get on those networks. Sometimes with that in mind, if you actually want to get anything done at all, it’s just easier to buy the oracles of the world, and even those are usually 2-3 revs behind due to ‘security reviews’. It’d be nice to see someone like a gov. CTO work towards some security standards that help us get ahead and use cutting-edge technology. Ok, I’ll stop dreaming and get back to work now.

The Arborist (user link) says:

Government IT centralization not necessarily good

I do bioinformatics for a non-security related government agency, and am basically an intense consumer of IT resources. During the Bush administration there was a big push within our agency toward centralization for “efficiency” purposes. Things like email and much of the tech support were taken over by a central service.

Of course they decided to use exchange and other Microsoft systems for most of it. I have no idea if running things is any cheaper now, but I will say that service quality is much reduced. Our institution of ~400 people has relatively responsive and generally effective sysadmin and IT support staff. Things were mostly run on old Solaris boxes and sybase databases, but that was good enough for me. Once you knew who was who it was easy to get directly to the person who would know how to fix whatever your problem was.

Now that things are centralized response time delays are much longer. You first have to convince an under-educated support person that you know what you’re talking about before you can get escalated to someone who knows something.

As a user just trying to get my work done, things have gotten worse.

I had previously heard horror stories about support in other ICs, and their service may have improved since the centralization. It may be that they centralized so that everyone has a nice medium level of mediocrity. The problem I see is that since a lot of government workers are CYA oriented (often by necessity) it’s a lot easier to influence decision makers and get things done when their bosses are members of your institution, rather than some other department over which you have limited contact or leverage.

The centralized security policies we’ve had to live with are oftentimes draconian, wrong-headed, and work inhibiting. Our network is filtered for any kind of chat/IM related service (even web based ones) because “they are frequent attack vectors”. Half the time I can’t get to innocuous web sites such as the evolution wiki or less innocuous, but helpful ones like to download a packet sniffer to help debug my software. Come on. Of course an internet where you can’t connect to anyone is more secure, but what’s the point? Non-microsoft email clients such as pine are discouraged because of the wholesale adoption of Exchange. I’m sure that enhances security.

I’m excited about the Obama presidency because I have /hope/ 😉 that competence will be more of a focus in the political appointees that end up having a major effect on how well the government runs. I’m not necessarily excited about any centralized decision maker for IT because the odds of getting a really good one seem low to me. Political appointees are usually not the most competent people in government, they frequently end up getting in the way of contractors and government employees and bureaucrats that just like doing their job well. That said it is also possible they could act as a break to prevent idiots from screwing things up too badly.

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