Technology May Play Key Role in Obama Infrastructure Plan

Next-generation networks, broadband and cyber-security could get more attention for new administration.

by , / December 29, 2008

In the end, one reason Barack Obama was elected president was his ability to connect with younger voters. But what's interesting is how he made that connection. For many who have grown up in the Information Age, the tried-and-true voter outreach strategies are no longer tried and true. For politicians, technology -- though perhaps not yet king -- has earned its place next to glad-handing and kissing babies. While John McCain appeared flabbergasted by mobile phones, Obama made a digital connection with many voters for whom technology ranks equally with food, shelter and clothing as life's necessities.

Like any good candidate, Obama's campaign featured a mix of specific policies and lofty, if vague, platitudes. His simple message of "change" resonated with a majority of Americans.


Video: Strengthening the nation's IT infrastructure was a focus for state CIOs at the NASCIO Annual Meeting in September.

For many, the president-elect embodies hope as well. Still, the grimness of reality can temper even the most idealistic visions of what Obama will accomplish -- and this is true even in the government IT community. With the floundering economy causing some pundits to declare the death of capitalism, can state and local governments really expect significant -- and positive -- change?

Broadband Roadblocks

Much of Obama's technology plan incorporates high-level goals, but seems to skimp on details for how these things will be achieved. So what should CIOs be looking forward to?

John Dankowski is one observer with firsthand experience witnessing how a president carries out (or doesn't) campaign promises. Working now as a principal with IT consulting firm Customer Value Partners, Dankowksi spent almost 25 years working in the White House, including a stint as President Bill Clinton's special assistant, overseeing IT projects and Y2K preparation. Dankowski said he thinks Obama might run into a situation where he's overpromised and may be forced to under-deliver.

One of the first roadblocks Obama may discover is a surprising lack of basic technology and connectivity.

"Looking at how tech-savvy the campaign was, there's going to be a natural expectation ... that infrastructures need to be in place, that IT should work, and I think [the Obama administration] may be in for some unexpected findings when they see there's not quite enough infrastructure, at least not quite as much as is needed," Dankowski said.

Obama has championed reforming the Universal Service Fund to expand broadband to rural areas. This move underpins almost every other technology initiative he's proposed, from more transparent government to reinvigorating student interest in math and science. But Dankowski said he isn't sure that will be immediately feasible given the economic situation.

"It's a matter of funding," he said. "Do [municipalities] have the resources themselves? I don't know if there will be federal money provided for that purpose."

Instead of working on broadband rollouts, Dankowski predicts Obama will first try to use technology to help right the nation's fiscal ship.

"I think there will be a great many new relationships and new processes formed around fixing the economy, more collaboration than ever between the financial industry and the government financial regulators," he said. "There were potentially a lot of indicators that we were headed for this [financial disaster], but the information was stovepiped in a lot of places. The aggregate could have given us some warning, but we didn't have that. I think there will be a lot of IT efforts around carefully aggregating information to give the leadership of this country a dashboard as to what all this aggregate data means. That sounds like a transformation opportunity in the IT space."


Recalibrating Priorities

John Skowron, a federal and state

consultant at Deloitte, said he sees Obama's broadband initiative as part of a larger infrastructure improvement project, a la President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Only this time, the government will hire as many people to lay fiber as pour concrete.

"I think [building out rural broadband] is going to be very important to this administration," Skowron said. "There's a general consensus that there will be more infrastructure spending. In the technology age, it may look different than the FDR infrastructure spending of solely bridges and highways. You could start to see spending within infrastructure from an IT perspective -- next-generation networks, expanding broadband, looking at cyber-security," Skowron explained. "I think technology is going to play a vital role in federal government, and that will certainly trickle down and permeate in the state and local space."

Financial woes aside, even ardent Bush supporters would probably agree his administration hasn't been terribly forthcoming. Obama seized on that during his campaign and promised, as part of his infrastructure plans, a new era of government openness that, much like expanding broadband, will help the rest of his technology plans move from campaign crowd-pleasers to reality.

"One of the things Obama had said was he wanted to create a chief performance officer and a performance team," said Anthony McKinney, public security director at SAP. "With the way we see decreasing resources, because he is IT savvy, he can help by leveraging all the technology initiatives and making sure that when they get implemented in the states, the states get rewarded from that performance-management perspective."


MyBarack, MyState, MyLocal

One core strength of Obama's presidential campaign was its expansion and innovative use of Web 2.0 tools for fundraising, energizing the Democratic Party base and Election Day "get out the vote" efforts. The campaign enthusiastically embraced new media -- online social networking, Twitter, YouTube, etc. -- and most observers believe it was a key advantage that propelled Obama to victory over McCain.

Of course, Obama also enjoyed advantages in both donors and total fundraising, banking about $745 million during the campaign from nearly 4 million contributors. Many of those donors also signed up on the campaign's social network, giving the president-elect a built-in legion of committed supporters whom he could call upon when attempting to push his legislative agenda through Congress.

Exactly how Obama would mobilize such an effort is unclear, and it's too soon to tell if his online support structure could lead to a new way forward for politics -- and furthermore, if such an apparatus would someday trickle down to state and local lawmakers.

What's clear is that Obama believes that the "democratization of data" will guide a new way forward. Yes, Obama is seemingly a technophile -- he is reportedly addicted to his BlackBerry and will also be the first sitting U.S. president to simulcast his weekly radio address on YouTube. But there are larger issues at hand. Obama's support of Net neutrality and his legislative backing of, a Web site that tracks federal spending on contracts, grants and other expenditures, could signal that technology will play a more prominent role in government and governance.

But how exactly will Obama achieve "change?" Some observers believe that it will come through "user-generated government," which is a buzzword for applications that are developed and created by public citizens using data that is released openly by the government.

"I was surprised when I first read about his technology policy that [Obama] seemed to be a candidate and a campaign that seemed to be much more 'with it' than politicians I've seen in the past," said Tim Koelkebeck, one of the developers who created, an

award winner in last fall's Apps for Democracy contest hosted by the District of Columbia. The contest challenged participants to build mash-up applications that use data released in real time by the Washington, D.C., government.

"I don't see [change] happening, though, in existing departments like the Department of Defense or the CIA," Koelkebeck said. "If they created a new department within the Secretary of Technology and were willing to bring in younger people and cherry-pick people from other agencies, then maybe getting that new blood in there would change technology's role in government."


Seeing Is Believing

Promising and believing in change is one thing; making change happen is a horse of a different color. As of press time, the world is reacting to a new, ugly visage of terrorism in Mumbai, India. At home, the president-elect is making a play for a Lincoln-esque Cabinet by surrounding himself with top-level advisers who together offer tremendous promise, but whose egos may make the road to change a difficult one. Even if these issues prove to be nonfactors, economic upheaval still threatens to derail the best-laid plans.

But should Obama emerge from his first 100 days relatively unscathed, there seems to be plenty of optimism that the nation's technology infrastructure will receive a much-needed shot in the arm. For those in the government IT community, there's much to look forward to -- believe it or not.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

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