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Google-enabled government starts with Obama's CTO

But when it comes to IT, the feds are nothing like the private sector

November 7, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - President-elect Barack Obama's plan to build a Google-enabled government began modestly this week with the new Change.gov Web site, which includes the means to apply for a job in the new administration.

One of the people this administration plans to hire: a CTO to manage federal IT. The person selected will be the nation's first chief technology officer.

The CTO position doesn't sound exciting, based on the job description, which may well have been copied from an IT Management 101 textbook. It says the job of the CTO will be to lead IT initiatives at federal agencies and "ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

Paul Strassman, a former CIO at NASA and the Department of Defense's director of defense information, said what the administration has to do first is define its management issues and information policy and then the technology will follow. "The question is, What are the objectives that [Obama] is trying to achieve?" Strassman said.

One thing that Obama does want is what has been called a Google-enabled government. That involves improving the transparency and access to the vast oceans of government data, in part, by moving the data into universally accessible formats. Many federal agencies have put data online but use different formats.

And who will be the CTO to lead this effort? The media rumor mill has cited just about every big name in tech, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who met with Obama today as a member of the new administration's economic advisory team; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.

Among the people on the transition team helping Obama select a CTO is Sonal Shah, head of global development initiatives at Google, and Julius Genachowski, co-founder of LaunchBox Digital, a Washington-based firm that helps start-up businesses.

Whether someone on the level of Ballmer or Schmidt would give up their day jobs for the frustrations of dealing with federal agencies is doubtful.

The White House may control the IT budget, but the federal government agencies have their own CIOs, management, methods and turf. That limits the power of any federal CTO, said Dave Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission.

"Government agencies can drag their feet when they are being pulled in directions they don't want to go," said Farber.

An example of how complicated relations with the White House can be: When Farber was at the FCC during the Clinton presidency, he said he was invited to a meeting with then Vice President Al Gore. FCC officials initially told Farber not to go, and "that the White House cannot tell you to show up there, and we're an independent agency." But when the message was addressed to him as a professor, Farber said the response from FCC higher-ups was, "Good -- go, tell us what's going on."



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