What This Country Needs is a Chief Technology Officer

I’ve read in a few places recently that president-elect Obama plans to appoint a Chief Technology Officer for America, perhaps as a cabinet-level position. This is one of those brilliant ideas that seems glaringly obvious in retrospect —  of course the most technically advanced, innovative, and computer intensive economy on the planet should have a high-ranking official in the federal government dedicated to technology issues! Why haven’t we had one since the dawn of the mainframe, PC, or Internet Eras? Still, much better late than never.

The precise job description is not yet clear, but how could it be? Technology’s role in American society is boundaryless and constantly increasing, so delineating the CTO’s role is going to be hard. Is it confined to information and communications technology, or should also include other blossoming flields like energy and life sciences? And is the mission to make policy, to allocate resources via something like a venture capital fund, to take control of large portions of the federal government’s IT spending and personnel, and/or to to be an advocate for enlightened use of technology in both the private and public sectors?

Good arguments can be made for any of these roles, and I hope that the US CTO is given a broad charter. But the office could still be an extremely valuable and important one even if it has a narrow mission. Let’s say that this is the case, and that the position comes with only a small staff and budget. The fear then is that it would descend into irrelevance because it would have no real authority or clout, and would be at best a bully pulpit.

Maybe. But I can think of at least three ways in which the office of the US CTO could do critical work even if it doesn’t control vast resources (these activities, of course, are highly complementary and would feed off each other):

Increasing transparency and accountability. There are many ways to use technology to make the work of the federal government more open and visible to the people. The city of Washington, DC is a leader in this area, having made over 200 data feeds about the municipal government available for download and mashup.
My father’s political hero was Harry Truman. I thought this was just Midwestern pride until I read David McCullough’s biography and learned about the Truman Committee to investigate fraud, corruption, inefficiency, and abuse among military contractors during World War II. The committee, which started as Truman himself driving around the country in his Dodge to bases under construction, is acknowledged by the Senate’s web site as "one of the most productive investigating committees in [our] entire history." This same page also fesses up, though, that congressional leaders assured President Roosevelt that the committee would not be able to cause much trouble because it had a budget of only $15,000. Give ’em Hell Harry found a way to make that money work hard, to the massive benefit of our country. Imagine what he could have done with a bit of modern technology.

Launching small projects with big impact. ‘Small’ here means inexpensive, at least in comparison to the federal governments overall IT spending, which exceeded $60 billion in 2005. As the Obama campaign well knows, the technologies of Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 can deliver benefits that are hugely disproportionate to their cost.
My favorite example of this within government so far is the deployment by the Directorate of National Intelligence of a powerful suite of 2.0 tools across all sixteen federal intelligence agencies. When the DNI was established many people felt that it wouldn’t be anything more than ‘a thin new layer of bureaucracy,’ which hardly sounds like what our country needs as it faces new enemies. The pessimism was both deep and broad; as Amy Zegart of UCLA said, " "I think it’s pretty telling that both Bob Gates and John Negroponte prefer jobs trying to bail us out of Iraq to the job of trying to fix U.S. intelligence." And while it’s certainly true that Intellipedia and its sister technologies have not done anything close to fixing US Intelligence, it’s also true that, as a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Knowledge Lab observed, "Intellipedia has the potential to change the nature of intelligence analysts’ work." The budget for all of the DNI’s 2.0 technologies has been described to me as ’rounding error’ when compared to the IT budget of any single intelligence agency. I am fully confident that there are many, many more opportunities within government to get huge bang for a judiciously spent IT buck.

Surfacing and sharing best practices. The examples of Intellipedia and the DC government show that there are plenty of good ideas and successful projects out there. A national CTO would add great value by simply highlighting them, showing how and why they work so well, distilling lessons learned and mistakes to be avoided, sharing this knowledge as widely as possible, and generally acting as a technology Johnny Appleseed for the country.
The more I learn about technology and how it’s put into use, the more struck I am by the wide spread in both approaches and results. Highlighting this fact and helping to spread the word about how to get the most from technology are noble pursuits. At Harvard Business School we teach primarily via the case study, and I’ve written, read, and taught enough of them to appreciate just how powerful they can be. The best technology case studies show people both what’s possible and how to get there, and they take away a naysayer’s ability to say "That’s all fine in theory, but it’ll never work in practice." Case studies show what actually has worked in practice, and provide concrete examples that people can read, discuss, and take back to their own jobs. A national library of best (and worst?) practice technology cases, maintained by the office of the CTO and used to educate and evangelize, would be a wonderful resource. 

America and the Obama administration face no shortage of challenges and opportunities. Because technology can help with so many of them, a national CTO could also be a great help to the country. Just writing about the office makes me excited about its potential. I think I’ll go over to change.gov and submit an application…