Robert Atkinson's new office in Washington, D.C., looks complete. The bookshelf behind his desk is already full and the computer is wired to the network. But his work launching a new foundation has just begun -- there's paperwork to complete and staff to hire.
Earlier this year, Atkinson left his position as vice president for the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) to start a new policy think tank, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which will focus on innovation, productivity and the digital economy.
That focus will include digital government. "There's a real vacuum as far as advocating for policies that support an IT economy," Atkinson said, adding that despite our status as a world-class IT leader, we're slipping. He cited recent research showing Korea, the Netherlands and Iceland have soared in broadband adoption while the United States continues to tread water: The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks the United States 12th among 30 nations surveyed in 2004 -- down from fourth place four years ago.
Atkinson wants the ITIF to educate decision-makers, advance policies that remove barriers to innovation and boost American competitiveness. Former U.S. Rep. Calvin Dooley, co-chair of the ITIF, said the ITIF fills a gap in the technology policy debate. "Our goal is to approach technology policy debates with reasoned and expert analysis that supports long-term innovation."
That's also Atkinson's take on e-government. In this month's Public CIO (Turbo-Charging E-Government), Atkinson advocates for a more entrepreneurial form of digital government: "To do this, governments need to think of themselves less as direct providers of e-government services and more as enablers of third-party integrators that tie together multiple agencies across multiple levels of government to package information, forms, regulations, and other government services and requirements in user-friendly ways."
Atkinson has long understood the importance of backing e-government with the proper blend of innovative practices, sound policies and leadership in the right places. At the PPI, he advocated for a Cabinet-level federal CIO position. At the ITIF, he wants to see state governments extend their mission as laboratories of democracy to becoming test beds for digital government.
Government IT is huge. The World Information Technology and Services Alliance estimates IT spending in 2006 at $192.6 billion for all public-sector levels. Can a newly hatched foundation impact such a vast sector of the economy and government? It's hard to say, but big ideas often spring from small places, especially with a visionary at the helm. Atkinson, who has been around Washington for quite a while, is the right person for the job.