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 OpenMarket.org 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.