by Timothy Lee

Filed Under:
national cto, politics

Do We Need a National CTO?

from the maybe-not dept

The 463 blog points us to an interview with Mitch Kapor of Lotus and EFF fame, in which he makes the case for a national Chief Technology Officer. The idea seems to be that technology policy in the United States is currently fragmented among a bunch of different positions, and having a designated top technologist in the government would help to bring coherence to the nation's technology policy. It sounds like a reasonable idea at first blush, but on closer examination it might create more problems than it solves.

To start with, it's important to distinguish between two jobs that are really quite different. One job is to coordinate the government's own IT infrastructure. Currently, IT decisions are made by the various federal agencies and departments within the federal government. A national CTO could conceivably set guidelines or policies related to IT infrastructure that would apply across the executive branch. The other job is to advise the president on substantive tech policy issues like network neutrality, patents, copyrights, etc. The two jobs are very different, and it's not at all clear it would make sense to have the same guy doing both. But let's consider each position in turn.

It's not clear how significant the potential savings or efficiency gains would be from having a single guy in charge of all government IT deployments. Up to a certain point, there are efficiency gains to be had from greater IT integration, but the federal government is probably so large that those economies of scale have already been exhausted. That's especially true when we consider that the different parts of the government have widely different requirements. Some parts, such as the FBI and NASA, have offices all over the country, while others are located almost entirely in Washington. Federal agencies do different kinds of work and need a wide variety of software packages. The current arrangement, in which each agency manages its own IT infrastructure, seems likely to give each agency more flexibility to choose technologies that meet its specific needs.

The idea of a designated tech policy advisor is more promising, but that also has potential downsides. A good choice could help bring coherence and vigor to a president's tech agenda, but, given enough power, a bad choice could cause just as much mischief. Therefore, if the next president does create a CTO position, he ought to limit its function to advising the president, rather than pursuing an independent policy agenda. A good model for this is the president's Council of Economic Advisors, which advises the president on economic policy and produces an annual report on the state of the economy but doesn't wield any significant authority in its own right.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    JM, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 2:53pm

    JM for CTO

    John McCain for CTO!!

    Waits for ensuing hilarity.....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Beefcake, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 3:00pm


    Said it before when this comes up, and I'll say it again. Great move killing off this office, 104th.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    kiba, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 3:23pm

    Free Market Anarchism

    Government should not be in the business of economic regulation, period. Their economic regulation is quite disastrous, really. For example, I heard that they're going to bail all the banks out and leave us a trillion dollar debts.

    Instead, they should abolish government monopolies on the court, police, national defense, and all other services that the government offer. Then, they should compete in the free market like the rest of society instead of stealing from society via taxation.

    While they're on becoming a legitimitive firm, they should abolish all government granted monopolies such as copyright and patent as well any kind other monopolies. This will mean that the telcommmunication industry will go back to earning a living and that mean that copyright holders can't speak evil of filesharing, which is a public's right.

    Of course, it will also be a boon for hardware manufacturers since it will increase demand for fatter and faster computers. It will also a boon for the majority of copyright holders as well now that the barrier of copyright is destroyed. That mean they get more chance for their work to be known and that mean more demand for whatever scarcity that they can provide.

    This will hopefully open the way for free market anarchist society. It will create a society of entrepreneurs, instead of a society of thugs who hide behind the law to disguise their immorality.

    Even if a true anarchist society is not possible, it is still important for us to oppose bullies whoever they are. Be it the RIAA, unions, the state, invaders, school bully, thieves, evil copyright holders, and other bullies. Let oppose them all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    DC tech exec, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 4:08pm

    Being real about what a CTO could actually do

    This idea of a CTO with line management responsibility for technology is so out of touch with the realities of how fund accounting, department decision making, and other DC constraints that it is laughable. If you want to have someone blow their brains out, put a Type A tech leader in charge - they will make it 6 months before they have a brain aneurysm.

    The CTO should be a person comfortable in persuasion - a staff type personality that speaks to overall technology policies and lobbies actively for his/her position. Larry Lessig is the best name mentioned so far that fits the bill from my perspective.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 4:10pm

    Two "things" are floating around:

    1. Obama's tech policy talks about a CTO position being created should he be elected. Kinda like a Super-IT guy, and most definitely not a tech policy position.

    2. Congress, as part of "Pro-IP Bill", is considering what some term an IP Czar who would be tasked with negotiating international treaties/compacts/etc. stiffening foreign recognition and protection of IP (in this bill ip=copyright). This is not a tech policy position.

    In short, there is nothing on the table or over the horizon to create something akin to a tech policy advisory position.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Legitimitive?, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 4:14pm

    Re: Free Market Anarchism

    Your argument would be a lot more persuasive if you were able to spell and write properly.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Urza, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 5:01pm

    Re: Free Market Anarchism

    What you propose is known as 'Anarcho-capitalism' I believe, and isn't really Anarchy at all. All you're doing is shifting the role of government over to private corporations. Personally, I think that'd end with some pretty bad results. As bad as our government is, at least they have to _pretend_ to be responsive to the will of the people. Well, usually.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 5:09pm

    Would this CTO have to meet any minimum knowledge / experience criteria in a technical field or would it be a politcal appointee who has earned a favor.

    I hope that Sen Stevens is not on the list.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Kyle Brady (profile), Aug 27th, 2008 @ 5:36pm

    Real Options

    For this position, we need *real* people. Not the sort of self-satisfied Web 2.0 idiots that Scoble and others are such a big fan of. Who am I talking about? Find out. --Kyle

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 7:44pm

    Re: Free Market Anarchism

    kiba wrote:

    Government should not be in the business of economic regulation, period. Their economic regulation is quite disastrous, really.

    The trouble is, free markets left to themselves do not remain free. They end up getting infested with anticompetitive practices like price-fixing, collusion, predatory pricing, deceptive advertising and just plain fraud. Not to mention the inevitable boom-bust cycles that just go faster the more efficiently the information flows.

    This is why free markets need ongoing regulation in order to remain free.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Aug 27th, 2008 @ 7:46pm

    While you're at it ...

    ... how about a CEO? Appointed by a board of directors? Who would the directors be? Perhaps answerable to the body of citizen-shareholders? So you couldn't be a citizen without being a shareholder?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Stephan Kinsella (profile), Aug 27th, 2008 @ 9:15pm

    Absolutely Not! SHRINK the government!

    No, we need to have the state reduce taxes and regulations. Period.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 7:24am

    NO . . .

    Please god no . . .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Isaac K (profile), Aug 28th, 2008 @ 9:01am

    Re: Free Market Anarchism

    Sorry, but your post smacks of a lack of understanding of the value of central governance.
    abolish police? courts? national defense? how about the water infrastructure? electrical systems? roads? hospitals? fire departments?
    yeah. good luck with that.
    Truth is, we need the government because it provides for the common needs in a way that satisfies the freeloader problem.
    you think corruption is bad now? look at the post-communist russian states. Anarchy? you have no idea.

    How would you like to be price gouged by the firefighters while your house burned down? or have ambulances refuse to take you until you agree to sign a contract [after all, we ARE saving your life, so i figure 50% of all income in perpetuity isn't too much to ask...]?

    Is OUR government well formed and efficient? heck no. Abolish it? that would just make everything you are griping about even worse.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 4:27pm

    What do you need beyond this...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Bunny, Aug 28th, 2008 @ 9:03pm

    Not everything can be directed from the top down

    A marching band has no problem with following a baton twirler, but technology isn't like that. Technology tends to develop in unforeseen directions. That's like the individual band members wanting to go march in their own direction instead of in lockstep with everyone else.

    This analogy leads me to think that a "CTO" will probably cause more harm than good, and especially if the decision is made by Washington and in the image of Washington.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    JA, Aug 29th, 2008 @ 11:20am

    not just IT

    I think there needs to be consideration of both an IT perspective and an IM (Information Management) perspective. I have seen how very infrequently the IT folks are able to think about policy issues relating to information management. These are two distinct roles and two distinct skill sets - good luck finding anyone who excels at both!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Bill Schrier, Aug 29th, 2008 @ 10:19pm

    CTO - Yes; Policy Czar - No

    As CTO for the City of Seattle, I have some thoughts on this issue, and have blogged about them here: blog.chiefseattlegeek.com.
    Fundamentally, the Fedgov could use an internal leader to help standardize the use of technology in the bureaucracy and push Federal departments to adopt the cutting edge technologies developed by the private sector.
    I agree with Vint Cerf as quoted by Ed Cone at CIO Insight: the last thing we need is a "technology czar" or someone trying to set technology policy for the nation. In my opinion, the private sector, in general, is doing a decent job with developing and pushing the envelopes of technology. We definitely need regulation - and we have plenty of that with the FCC, DARPA, FTC, DHS etc. - all of which could be improved in a new administration.
    I'd suggest finding someone as National CTO to get the Fedgov bureaucracy to standardize and use cutting edge technology effectively.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    oregonnerd, Aug 30th, 2008 @ 12:37pm

    TechDirt for...


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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