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.

Filed Under: national cto, politics

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  1. identicon
    JA, 29 Aug 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!

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