Health

Congressman pushes to expand chief technology officer's influence

A lawmaker who backed the recent selection of Aneesh Chopra for White House chief technology officer continues to push his bill to make the position permanent, more powerful and more expansive, because the job's responsibilities are not what President Obama had first described.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., is still backing a bill ( H.R. 1910) he introduced on April 2, because the job the president granted Chopra -- coordinating national strategies to spur innovation throughout the economy -- is not the role outlined during the transition. At that time, Obama said the responsibilities would be "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."

The CTO -- the first-ever in government -- will focus more on leveraging technology to drive public and private innovation rather than using technology to transform government operations. Vivek Kundra, Obama's chief information officer, who resides in the Office of Management and Budget, will play that role by overseeing governmentwide information technology. Obama made the CTO an assistant to the president, with direct access to him, and an associate director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, reporting to OSTP Director John Holdren.

In contrast, the Connolly proposal would station an official in the Executive Office of the President to supervise both technology governmentwide and national technology strategies.

Connolly said his bill would ensure that the CTO is the supreme technology leader in the White House, responsible for advancing intergovernmental and nationwide technology. Under the measure, the CTO's duties would include assessing federal IT policies, analyzing trends inIT, developing IT to assist human resource management, evaluating the effect of systems on privacy and security, and advising the president on the federal IT budget.

"What I'm trying to do here is essentially provide a statutory framework for what President Obama has done by executive order," said Connolly, referring to a February order that established the position of assistant to the president and chief technology officer. "It is a logical extension of what he has done. It guarantees that the CTO is the spokesman for technology in the federal government and the White House itself -- and the advocate for it."

In February, Connolly and fellow Virginia Democrat Jim Moran wrote Obama to recommend he give the CTO job to Chopra, at the time the technology secretary for the commonwealth of Virginia and a former managing director at the Washington-based Advisory Board Co., a health care consulting firm. "His experience in the private and public sectors, with a focus on health care information technology, is ideal for a position that will have responsibilities dealing both with stimulus spending on health care and environmental programs as well as forthcoming efforts to extend health care coverage," they wrote.

"When this bill was introduced it was visionary, calling for the creation of a federal CTO and all but openly hoping that the nominee would be Aneesh Chopra, or someone very much like him," said Rick Weiss, OSTP senior science and technology policy analyst. "Now we have Aneesh nominated by the president to fill this important role, and we are thrilled -- as so many in the tech community have exuberantly said they are -- that the process has begun to get him confirmed so he can get settled here at OSTP and put his talents to work for the nation."

Some former federal officials and technology experts are critical of the bill.

"It's premature. Why not wait until there's a track record and some lessons learned?" asked Bruce McConnell, who was the IT policy chief at OMB during the Clinton administration. "The CTO's portfolio needs to extend beyond information technology, letting the CIO focus productively on federal IT."

Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute, a computer security research group, said, "A CTO who has all those assignments would be totally ineffectual. The bill does not set priorities or measures of effectiveness, and without those it provides a license for every group to criticize."

The bill has been referred to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. A committee aide declined to comment on the measure and said a markup date has not been scheduled.

Trey Hodgkins, vice president for national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, a technology industry association, said it is vital that the federal government have both a CTO and a CIO and that their jurisdictions be clearly outlined.

TechAmerica has not taken a position on the legislation, but Hodgkins said, "It's important that [the two officials] have the appropriate authorities to help facilitate . . . participatory democracy and if a statute is what it takes to get there," then legislation may be beneficial.

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