We need a CIO and CTO of the USA

In a soon-to-be-released podcast I did with Dana Gardner, Tony Baer, and Jim Kobielus, we briefly discussed the topic of President-Elect Obama’s desire to create a federal CTO position. Some articles are now coming out about this topic, including this one on ZDNet’s Between The Lines blog, this one from Business Week, and this one from the Wall Street Journal. Unlike these articels, I’m not going to pontificate on who might make a good CTO of the USA. Rather, I’m interested in what a CTO of the USA must do, and whether one person is enough.

One of the very early decisions that will help determine the right person for this role is whether the whole take on technology will be inwardly focused or externally focused. Compare this to SOA adoption in an enterprise. Two common questions that must be addressed are, “how do I build services the right way?” and “how do I build the right services?” Both of these questions are important. The first is more inwardly focused, the second is more externally focused. What is the more pressing question for the CTO of the USA? Is more about fixing the way we leverage information technology within the federal government and its multitude of agencies? Or, is this more about how the government makes information technology services available to the constituents?

Interestingly, if we look at President-Elect Obama’s policies in this space, he actually addresses both sides of this, but only one of them references the creation of a CTO position. Both of them are under the header of “Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy.” The first bullet item in this section is “Open Up Government to its Citizens.” Specific actions (not all are listed here) he calls out include:

  • Making government data available online in universally accessible formats to allow citizens to make use of that data to comment, derive value, and take action in their own communities.
  • Establishing pilot programs to open up government decision-making and involve the public in the work of agencies …
  • Lifting the veil from secret deals in Washington with a web site, a search engine, and other web tools…
  • Employing technologies, including blogs, wikis and social networking tools, to modernize internal, cross-agency, and public communication and information sharing to improve government decision-making.

Clearly, this seems all about the external view of the federal government and its interaction with the constituents. Note, however, that there is no mention of the CTO position in this bullet point. Where the CTO is mentioned is in the next bullet point, “Bring Government into the 21st Century.” Here, he calls out:

  • Appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century.
  • The CTO will have a specific focus on transparency… The CTO will also focus on using new technologies to solicit and receive information back from citizens to improve the functioning of democratic government
  • The CTO will … ensure technological interoperability of key government functions.

The bullet items here are much more inwardly focused, with the exception of the “also focus” portion of the second one.

I think these two areas actually each require their own dedicated attention. Interesting, the two articles I mentioned earlier that call out people for the CTO role are all tapping the private sector for people that would seemingly be more appropriate for handling the portions of President-Elect Obama’s policies on opening up government to its citizens, the externally-focused portion. For the role where the CTO position is called out, the important factor here seems to be an ability to implement consistent technologies and interoperable messaging across all of the federal agencies. While you can argue that an outsider may be required to actually get these legacy agencies to change, I would think that someone with strong familiarity with the operation of these federal agencies is going to be critical.

What I think would be the perfect situation would be to have both a federal CIO and a federal CTO. The CIO would likely come from the private sector and be focused on opening up the government to its citizens through the use of information technology. The CTO, on the other hand, would have more experience in the public sector and would be focused on fixing things on the inside to ensure the goals of the CIO and the administration can be met.

One final comment on this. In this blog, Jim Kobelius calls out the need for an “online presidential scorecard.” The fourth process of governance that I define is “measure and feedback,” so I think a scorecard makes great sense, although I also think that this could be a very difficult scorecard to create and make consumable for the average citizen. That sounds like a great task for a federal CIO tasked with opening up government to its citizens. What better way to show transparency than to present a scorecard that shows how the administration is viewing its own efforts toward its goals.

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