President-elect Barack Obama has promised to appoint the world's first governmental Chief Technology Officer (CTO). On its transition Web site, www.change.gov, the incoming Administration has published a list of goals for the soon-to-be anointed CTO: broadband expansion, boosting science/tech education, health-care computerization, patent reform, and e-government.
The goals are well-intentioned. What is missing is an effective and efficient strategy. So-called "czars" have been appointed for drugs, the war in Iraq, the financial industry, and the auto sector—none of them have worked very well. The Obama team needs to be careful not to reinvent the wheel, focusing instead on technology lessons from the countries that have overtaken the U.S. already, the practices of companies that have top CTOs, and a flexible strategy for implementing policy across the sprawling federal government.
The U.S. may be the first country to have a CTO. That doesn't mean other countries have not put in place effective tech leadership. In the past 28 years, Singapore has had six national plans that have progressively modernized the government infrastructure, starting from computerization of civil services to the current "Intelligent Nation 2015" or iN2015 plan, which in vivid detail envisions a future where every individual and organization has seamless access to technology.
Singapore and Estonia
By comparison, Obama's prosaic wish list is nothing to write home about—but his Administration can learn from Singapore's phased and segmented approach.
Even tiny countries like Estonia have emerged from years behind the Iron Curtain to quickly create e-government infrastructures that would shame the U.S. bureaucracy today. Indeed, Estonia has become an exemplar of e-government, where everyone votes and pays taxes online, not to mention pays parking tickets via mobile phones. The country's image as a leader in tech did suffer a blow, however, when Russian cyberwarriors hacked the government's electronic infrastructure in April 2007, bringing the country to a standstill: Even customers paying for milk and bread in grocery stores suddenly found that their bank cards didn't work. A deeply interconnected technical network is as valuable as it is vulnerable. Estonia is a valuable case study in how to protect oneself from the susceptibility of technology.
Detractors will be quick to say these countries are so small; it's far easier to have broadband penetration among Singapore's 4 million than the 300 million in the U.S. Scale does matter, but if the principles of technology reform are sound, then scalability is a question of time, not of possibility. Even China talks of building an information superhighway for its 1.5 billion citizens. The U.S. should have no less ambitious a goal. In economic theory, modernizing economies experience "catch-up growth" and quick, high returns from emulating and adopting high-technologies. America's CTO—like officials from the United Arab Emirates—should travel widely and send emissaries to gather lessons from others' experiences while taking note of their mistakes.
Digital Natives vs. Immigrants
Government-sponsored innovation is nothing new: The U.S. Defense Dept. created the Internet, and Japan's automobile sector grew according to a conscious government plan before becoming world-beating. But by and large, technology innovation now comes from the private sector, with the government playing catch-up. To paraphrase Marc Prensky's famous terminology, corporations are now "digital natives," while the government is a "digital immigrant," learning the new language of technology but retaining a heavy accent.
Who might assume the CTO role? Among the reported contenders are Hewlett-Packard CTO Shane Robison; Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf; and Vivek Kundra, CTO of Washington, D.C. But plucking a well-known executive as the government's tech guru will not substitute for continuous public-private collaboration to ensure that innovations are adapted to the government setting. Areas where discussions would be especially useful range from building energy-efficient infrastructures such as green data centers and cloud computing to providing citizens online government services using Web 2.0 technologies.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched an aggressive "customer-oriented government" initiative, led by Paul Cosgrave, CIO of the city's Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT). In order to tackle poverty, the DoITT worked with Accenture (ACN) and Irish software company Cúram Software to roll out ACCESS NYC, a free online service that prescreens individuals anonymously and provides information on their eligibility for 21 different city, state, and federal programs. Consolidating the screening and application process for a range of programs into one online tool saves time and money for all involved, notably needy individuals.
Obama's education and health-care priorities for the CTO cannot simply be parceled out to various departments and agencies. The Administration will need to adopt an approach that can be spread across the government—using, for example, a so-called service-oriented architecture that would let the Administration roll out applications independently but using a common set of standards.
Visas and Green Cards
This approach would have helped avoid past mistakes. Take the disaster of FBI background checks for student visas and green cards. The current manual process involves poring over files and soliciting dozens of records from an array of departments by mail and fax, keeping applications stuck for years. Increasingly, disgruntled graduates depart for more welcoming countries like Canada, leaving the U.S. to suffer brain drain. But if police records and other files are stored in databases, departments can more easily integrate with each other and exchange data in a streamlined manner. Similarly, when someone is in fact a danger to national security, important information is not inaccessibly compartmentalized—such as when the 9/11 hijackers were being followed by the FBI yet were issued green cards by the Immigration & Naturalization Service.
Building technology around standard protocols helps in integration not only between federal departments but also, eventually, between state and federal departments, which are more often than not completely out of sync.
Far from being limited to domestic affairs, the CTO could well be a commercial diplomat, working with the Commerce Secretary to expand the country's edge in high-tech exports. The Defense Dept.'s creation of the Web was seized on by Silicon Valley, launching the sustained economic boom of the 1990s, which saw American tech companies reach the commanding heights. Now with tech exports from Japan, India, and others nipping at America's heels, strategic partnerships between the government and tech companies could become a pillar of foreign policy. The CTO's office can spearhead international road shows for innovative U.S. firms ready to export user-friendly e-government platforms. The U.S. may lag behind Europe and the Far East in some areas, but much of the world has yet even to get off the ground, meaning the CTO can play a crucial role in introducing American tech firms to emerging markets. This effort can take inspiration from Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), which have multiplied their global customer base by adopting their products to foreign languages and cultures.
Beyond Obama's to-do list for the first American CTO, these guidelines will make the position more consistent with the modern-day definition of a CTO as the CEO's thought partner in mapping out a strategy for growth and operational efficiency. To start anywhere else would be to doom the CTO to an isolated, antiquated back-office IT role, dangerously incapable of enhancing American competitiveness in the 21st century.