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Obama's pledge to name federal tech chief causes buzz

November 14, 2008|Kim Hart | Hart writes for the Washington Post

The most talked-about tech job in government is one that never before existed.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama said he would appoint the nation's first chief technology officer who would, according to his website, help federal agencies use technology "to make government work better."

But he's given no specifics about the job, leaving the tech community to speculate about the role and who might fill it.

Would the CTO focus on technology policy issues such as net neutrality and broadband access? Or would the technology czar aim to update the government's information technology (IT) systems and weave the Internet into more agency activities?

"It seems to be much more of an operations and administrative slot," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications in Bethesda, Md. "But it could make significant policies about IT and how it could rebuild America's infrastructure."

The Obama camp isn't talking, but during the campaign it proposed using technology to, for example, make government records more accessible, increase network security and digitize health records. Also in question is whether a CTO would be a Cabinet-level position or a White House post.

"There's a whole lot of discussion about where the focus is going to be," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, a technology consulting and research firm in San Jose. "This is the first time we've had a president that's taken technology seriously."

A top priority might be getting rid of redundant information technology systems, many of which do not operate across agencies. That could reduce spending and make operations more efficient, Enderle said.

What effect such changes would have on government technology system contractors is unclear. In campaign speeches, Obama said he intended to make contracts more efficient.

"Budget pressures are absolutely enormous," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents contracting firms. "More efficient contracting is an attainable goal. The question is, what are the tools to becoming more efficient, and how are we going to manage and administer them?"

Using the Web to collaborate with citizens is a promising goal, said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington nonprofit organization.

"It's about allowing interactivity by citizens with their government at all levels," she said. "That's a really big job because at the moment there's no central authority. There's no core policy in place."

Although the tech community has shown excitement about the position, there's no guarantee a CTO would be effective, Arlen said. "It could go to either extreme," he said.

Speculation about who might be named to the post has created so much buzz that websites have been created to take suggestions, such as, created by Seattle software firm Front Seat. Much debate centers on whether the CTO should be a tech industry executive or someone with government experience.

Julius Genachowski, a key member of Obama's transition team and former Federal Communication Commission advisor, is considered a front-runner for the job. Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google Inc., and Vint Cerf, who helped develop the Internet and now has the title of chief Internet evangelist at Google, have been mentioned as possible contenders, as has Shane Robison, chief technology officer at Hewlett-Packard Co.

Schmidt has said he is not interested. The others aren't talking.

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