Change Watch: A National CTO is not a Fairy Godmother

by Devanshu Mehta

Everybody seems to have a wish-list for the incoming president. Some organizations have even put together humongous documents with recommendations for the new administration. I’ve been covering some of them here– when they seem interesting and within my areas of interest– but the sheer volume of “what I really want from the new president” is astonishing. Many on the left are already disappointed with Obama, 60 days before his inauguration.

One position that everyone on the Internet seems to have an opinion about is the mythical Chief Technology Officer that Obama had promised the nation. ObamaCTO.org has been formed– not by the campaign- to solicit ideas for a CTO agenda.

Jim Harper makes an excellent point. A CTO can’t undo legislation or executive orders or court orders. Says Harper:

I’ve got some news or you: These are policy proposals that would be beyond the purview of any CTO. Policy proposals go through Congress and the President, advised by his policy staff. They do not go through a CTO.

If the Baltimore Ravens asked the team physician to kick field goals, the results would be about what you’d get from asking a federal CTO to carry out these policies.

Excellent point. The CTO cannot repeal the DMCA or the USA Patriot Act or mandate Net Neutrality. What the CTO can do is shine sunlight (thanks Jim Harper). A CTO can open up federal government data with portable and open data formats. RSS, XML, APIs– ways for people and machines to process, visualize and analyze the governments (our) data.
Obama’s official agenda says the following:

  • Open Up Government to its Citizens: Use cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens.
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century: Use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

UPDATE: I’ve added this as a suggestion on the ObamaCTO.org web site- “bring expectations for CTO in check. CTO is not Santa.”

A CTO will not have power over courts, legislation and executive orders. A CTO will have power over how government uses technology- so bring your expectations down to earth, and ask for things like more transparency in Federal government and use of open standards in federal communications, documents, etc.

Vote for it! Use the system to change the system.

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