Editorial: Federal IT Chief Should Be a CIO, Not a CTO

President-Elect Obama's best candidates for tech czar aren't in federal government or the private sector.

by / November 20, 2008

For some time now, the latest parlor game craze in government IT circles is guessing who will become President-elect Barack Obama's CTO. The hunch is that someone, probably from the private sector, is going to be named to this Cabinet-level position. The CTO's actual responsibilities have been a bit vague, with references to helping chart policy that increases broadband penetration, pushes a green IT agenda and may or may not have something to do with wireless spectrum (currently an FCC responsibility) and Net neutrality.

Names that have been bandied about from the start as possible choices include the usual suspects from the private sector: Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO), Vint Cerf (vice president and chief Internet evangelist of Google), Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) and Sam Palmisano (IBM CEO), to name a few. More recently -- as some pundits pointed out that corporate IT titans might not be the best pick for a high-level policy position with little actual authority -- former federal government veterans have been mentioned, including Alan Balutis, former CIO for the Department of Commerce; Bob Gourley, CTO at advisory firm CrucialPoint and former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency; Dawn Meyerriecks, a consultant in Washington, D.C., and former CTO of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA); and Harry Raduege Jr., who was director of DISA and now chairs the Deloitte Center for Network Innovation.

Lately however, the thinking about the purpose of the CTO's role is shifting away from someone who will help Obama give his administration a Web 2.0 sheen, and toward a role that will actually focus on making federal government more open, while cutting costs and delivering more efficient services to citizens through the better use of technology. In other words, a CIO.

But so far, the government IT blogosphere and media have focused on what a CIO could do to make federal government more Web 2.0 savvy, more like the Obama campaign, with its sophisticated use of wikis, YouTube videos, Twitter, blogs and so on.

Sorry, but they are missing a big reason for installing a competent CIO at the highest level in federal government. Federal IT practices have been a hit-and-miss proposition for too long. For every success the feds have had, several failures lay in their wake -- some of them major. Office of Management and Budget E-Government and IT Administrator Karen Evans has done the best she could with the tools she has had. But without the ability to sit next to the president and look a Cabinet secretary in the eye and say, "We will have shared services, and we will consolidate data centers and we will work with state and local government CIOs to do a better job of using IT," it just isn't going to happen.

What this country needs is a true CIO with a seat at the table, who is not focused on policy, but on the business of government. Because that's where our real government IT problems lie: IT waste, failed IT systems, lack of IT governance models, lack of an enterprise approach -- federal-state-local -- to IT in the public sector.

So who out there in the universe of CIOs has the ability to understand not just bureaucracy, but also the promise of new technology and has experience working directly with a CEO?

I would argue that the Obama transition team needs to look beyond private-sector IT moguls and former federal IT bureaucrats to the pool of highly experienced public CIOs in state and local government, if they want the best candidate for the right job.

Possible choices include the following from the states: Teri Takai, CIO of California; Colorado CIO Mike Locatis; Steve Fletcher, Utah CIO, Gerry Weaver, CIO of Indiana; Chris Cummiskey, Arizona CIO -- and, at the local level: Paul Cosgrave, CIO of New

York City and right in Obama's new backyard, Vivek Kundra, CTO of the District of Columbia.

These people have a blend of public- and private-sector experience at the CIO level, are proven adopters of new and innovative technologies and, most importantly, have experience working directly with their CEO -- the governor or mayor of their jurisdiction. The ability of a CIO to translate a leader's vision -- in this case Obama's -- into a working plan that includes all major stakeholders, across the tiers of government, is what this country needs.

Just as governors have real experience governing, so too do state and local CIOs have experience working within budgets while delivering actual services that impact the daily lives of taxpayers. They understand the need to integrate and align federal programs with services delivered at the state and local level using cost-effective IT.

To better understand what's needed to fix federal IT, link federal programs with state and local IT funding and why non federal CIOs have a better handle on the problem, read last week's look at the issue.

Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO