February 23, 2018

Obama's CTO: two positions?

Paul Blumenthal over at the Sunlight Foundation Blog points to a new report from the Congressional Research Service: “A Federal Chief Technology Officer in the Obama Administration: Option and Issues for Consideration”.

This report does a good job of analyzing both existing positions in federal government that have roles that overlap with some of the potential responsibilities of an “Obama CTO” and the questions that Congress would want to consider if such a position is established by statute rather than an executive order.

The crux of the current issue, for me, is summed up well by this quote from the CRS report’s conclusion:

Although the campaign position paper and transition website provide explicit information on at least some of the duties of a CTO, they do not provide information on a CTO’s organizational placement, structure, or relationship to existing offices. In addition, neither the paper nor website states whether the president intends to establish this position/office by executive order or whether he would seek legislation to create a statutory foundation for its duties and authorities.

The various issues in the mix here lead me to one conclusion: an “Obama CTO” position will be very different from the responsibilities of a traditional chief technology officer. There seem to be at least two positions involved: one visionary and one fixer. That is, one person to push the envelope in a grounded-but-futurist style in terms of what is possible and then one person to negotiate the myriad of agencies and bureaucratic parameters to get things done.

As for the first position, I’d like to say a futurist would be a good idea. However, futurists don’t like to be tethered so much to current reality. A better idea is, I think, a senior academic with broad connections and deep interest and understanding in emerging technologies. The culture of academia, when it works well, can produce individuals who make connections quickly, know how to evaluate complex ideas and are good at filling gaps between what is known and not known for a particular proposal. I’m thinking a Felten, Lessig, etc. here.

As for the fixer, this desperately needs to be someone with experience negotiating complex endeavors between conflicting government fiefdoms. Vivek Kundra, the CTO for the District of Columbia, struck me as exactly this kind of person when he came to visit last semester here at Princeton’s CITP. When Kundra’s name came up as one of two shortlisted candidates for “Obama CTO”, I was a bit skeptical as I wasn’t convinced he had the appropriate visionary qualities. However, as part of a team, I think he’d be invaluable.

It could be possible that the other shortlisted candidate, Cisco’s Padmasree Warrior, would have enough of the visionary element to make up the other side of the team; I doubt she has (what I consider to be) the requisite governmental fixer qualities.

So, why not two positions? Does anyone have both these qualities? Do people agree that these are the right qualities?

As to how it would be structured, it’s almost as if it should be a spider position — a reference to a position in soccer that isn’t tethered by role. That is, they should be free from some of the encumbrances that make government information technology innovation so difficult.