June 24, 2024

Tech Policy Challenges for the Obama Administration

[Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School asked me to write a short essay on information technology challenges facing the Obama Administration, as part of the School’s Inaugural activities. Here is my essay.]

Digital technologies can make government more effective, open and transparent, and can make the economy as a whole more flexible and efficient. They can also endanger privacy, disrupt markets, and open the door to cyberterrorism and cyberespionage. In this crowded field of risks and opportunities, it makes sense for the Obama administration to focus on four main challenges.

The first challenge is cybersecurity. Government must safeguard its own mission critical systems, and it must protect privately owned critical infrastructures such as the power grid and communications network. But it won’t be enough to focus only on a few high priority, centralized systems. Much of digital technology’s value—and, today, many of the threats—come from ordinary home and office systems. Government can use its purchasing power to nudge the private sector toward products that are more secure and reliable; it can convene standards discussions; and it can educate the public about basic cybersecurity practices.

The second challenge is transparency. We can harness the potential of digital technology to make government more open, leading toward a better informed and more participatory civic life. Some parts of government are already making exciting progress, and need high-level support; others need to be pushed in the right direction. One key is to ensure that data is published in ways that foster reuse, to support an active marketplace of ideas in which companies, nonprofits, and individuals can find the best ways to analyze, visualize, and “mash up” government information.

The third challenge is to maintain and increase America’s global lead in information technology, which is vital to our prosperity and our role in the world. While recommitting to our traditional strengths, we must work to broaden the reach of technology. We must bring broadband Internet connections to more Americans, by encouraging private-sector investment in high-speed network infrastructure. We must provide better education in information technology, no less than in science or math, to all students. Government cannot solve these problems alone, but can be a catalyst for progress.

The final challenge is to close the culture gap between politicians and technology leaders. The time for humorous anecdotes about politicians who “don’t get” technology, or engineers who are blind to the subtleties of Washington, is over. Working together, we can translate technological progress into smarter government and a more vibrant, dynamic private sector.


  1. I don’t think this will make it to your top-4 challenges, but I think using technology for developing third world countries is an important one. Especially when you look at terrorism as a literacy, and not religious, problem.

    The US directs billions of dollars in aid to poor nations with little or no investment in development through technology. Food, clothes, clean water, and medicines are important, but so is the intellectual and technical development of these nations. In fact, in the long run the latter can enable these nations to be self-sufficient.

    One example can be the (in)famous One Laptop Per Child project. Nicholas Negroponte has received little support directly from the US government. Firing one less Tomahawk Missile, costing approx. $1 million each, can help enlighten the young minds of 5,000 Afghan kids.

  2. I am having an increasingly hard time with statements such as “We must bring broadband Internet connections to more Americans, by encouraging private-sector investment in high-speed network infrastructure.”

    In theory, we live in a free-market system, where many demand that the government stay out of the private sector since any government involvement is considered bad,evil, inefficient, and so on. So when I read the word “encourage” I take it as a code word to mean taxpayer subsidy or favorable legislation, So if one wants a real free market system why aren’t the entrepreneurs stepping in? The basic responses are: there is no money to made, we are not altruists, and the standard complaint of government regulation. To me this boils down to a free market failure. The free-market really can’t provide despite the assertions that it will give us all sorts of bells and whistles to play with.

    But, I want to go to he next analytical step. Korea has been bandied about as a successful implementer of broad band. What has amazed me is that one seems to ask the critical question of : Why is Korea better?

    All that I seem to read is that we are behind Korea therefore we have to eliminate regulation to be competitive. Regretfully, this is dumb logic because no one seems to provide any explanation of why Korea is better. For all I know, their internet could be more regulated and could even be government owned. My point is that we need to look at a successful implementation and learn from it.

    Additional comments here: Great Net Neutrality Debate II

  3. You may be interested to see the Open Knowledge Foundation’s recent post on What Obama can do to promote openness!

  4. As a filthy foreigner, I’m not sure I support any effort to “increase America’s global lead in information technology”. It just worsens the case of superiority complex and drives a bigger wedge between nations.

  5. Jeff Keltner says

    There is clearly a need for all of the areas you point out, but I would add the need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our federal government by better use of technology. The number of systems in place and their lack of proper integration is clearly a hindrance to the government achieving all of its objectives. It would be great to see Obama bring some sanity to the world of federal government IT systems.

  6. Abolishing copyright would be a great start to closing the culture gap.

    Move on to the abolition of patents after that.

    These two inegalitarian privileges are the final vestiges of an era in which individual liberty was considered secondary to commercial prosperity.