Techie-in-Chief

As Inauguration Day approaches, the buzz around the creation of a national chief technology officer has taken center stage. The Web has been rife with speculation on everything from who should win the spot to the issues the new CTO will tackle.

On the candidacy side, whispers of private-sector tech gurus as possible contenders for the CTO position suggest an unprecedented linkage between Silicon Valley and Washington.

“There are some great technology firms that surround the whole Washington area,” said John Murphy, director of technologies for the official site of the U.S. government, USA.gov. “[There would be] the opportunity for more of that [research and development] to rise to the top for the government to take advantage of.”

But some expressed concerns over the possible culture shock that could take place if a private-sector individual were thrown into the bureaucracy of government.

“We need someone more involved in the issues than the software and hardware,” wrote Mike Schaffner, director of information technology for the Valve and Measurement Group of Cameron, in a recent commentary on Forbes.com.

When it comes to issues that the new CTO might face, it seems the biggest question has to do with prioritizing, said Matt Lerner, CTO of FrontSeat.org, a civic software company that recently launched ObamaCTO.org to encourage citizens to comment directly on the new CTO’s top priorities.

“What projects does it make sense for the government to do themselves versus what should happen outside the government?” Lerner said. “It’s a broader question about should the government focus on standardizing and opening up their data or on building consumer-facing Web sites?”

Lerner said he feels the government should focus on standardizing data through application program interfaces (APIs) so other innovators can build the consumer-facing Web sites.

“[For example], the Census Web site is almost impossible to use, [but] it’s filled with great data. All the government really needs to do is make that data available in a standard way, and I think you would see a ton of innovation outside the government,” Lerner said.

Another main initiative, one laid out by President-elect Barack Obama during his campaign, involves having a more transparent government — a “Google-enabled government.” Obama said he would push the use of technology to help solve societal problems and meet the missions of various governmental agencies.

“Clearly, technology is the tool,” said Beverly Godwin, director of Web best practices for USA.gov. “If you look at the priorities [listed] on Change.gov, [they talk about using] technology to solve our nation’s most pressing problems. Some of the examples are lowering health costs by investing in electronic information technology systems and broad adoptions of standard-based health systems.”

Improving communications infrastructure also should be prominent on the new CTO’s agenda, said James Carlini, president of Chicago-based Carlini & Associates, which provides marketing and sales strategies for telecommunications and information technology companies.

“I think the more important direction is to look at cutting-edge technologies to create a more advanced America,” Carlini said. “Unfortunately, our network infrastructure hasn’t kept up with a lot of countries that were at one time viewed as Third World countries [but now have] state-of-the art network infrastructures.”

A final question is whether having a government CTO will affect the IT job market. Carlini said he thought it would, both positively and negatively.

“I think [having a federal CTO] is a good move, but I fear [that with] the way they’re talking about outsourcing jobs and creating more [H-1B] visas, the IT industry, if anything, is going to get worse and not better,” he said.

Hopefully Obama will choose an IT leader with the potential to carry out innovative and job-friendly tech initiatives amid uncertain economic times.

“There are a lot of things that can be done, but [a new CTO] will take it to a new level,” Murphy said.

– Elizabeth Lisican, editor (at) certmag (dot) com

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