Campaign advisers say CIO job should be a career position

Representatives of Barack Obama and John McCain also pledge to use technology to make government more transparent.

Federal technology chiefs should be career civil servants, not political appointees, representatives of both presidential campaigns said during a forum at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., on Tuesday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.This would help ensure that agencies undertake technology initiatives that make sense strategically and are not politically motivated, said Michael Nelson, senior technology adviser for the campaign of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, and Virginia state delegate Tim Hugo, who spoke on behalf of Republican nominee John McCain's campaign. Both acknowledged that exceptions to that rule might be appropriate in certain cases. In particular, Nelson said one exception would be the White House chief technology officer -- or "super CIO" -- Obama would appoint to address governmentwide information technology policies and projects.

Both said technology could help accomplish greater transparency in government, an area in which they gave the Bush administration less-than-stellar reviews.

Nelson, who is the former director of Internet technology and strategy at IBM, referenced plans to use innovative Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, social networking tools, publicly searchable databases and online video streaming of agency deliberations in real time. He also pointed to the Obama campaign's fund-raising success using social networking Web sites such as MySpace, and expressed support for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to use the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more accessible to citizens.

"We've deployed these technologies," Nelson said. "[Sen. Obama] knows if he's in the White House, it's because of IT." The challenge of the next administration, Nelson said, is to take innovation to new levels, with technologies such as cloud computing and Web 2.0.

"High technology is the core for every company," said Hugo, a delegate of Virginia's 40th District, which includes Centreville, Clifton, Fairfax and Fairfax Station. "If you don't understand [that] as a CEO, you're going to fail. And if you're the [head] of your agency and don't understand technology, you're going to fail."

But not all conference attendees, which included both government and industry representatives, seemed confident that either candidate would place enough emphasis on IT.

"A lot of this is talk," Daniel Mintz, CIO of the Transportation Department, told the campaign representatives during a question-and-answer period. Until CIOs are provided control over the IT budget, he said, "It's a conversation, not a strategic [change]."