Obama likely to put off IT investments, analysts say

Tight budgets and economic slowdown could delay new administration’s technology investments to support transparency and more communication with public.

The sagging economy will make investments in federal information technology initiatives touted by President-elect Barack Obama during his campaign unlikely, say federal IT specialists.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Obama's technology and innovation plan, released during his campaign, calls for using cutting-edge technology to create "a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens."

But few IT analysts and professionals expect the Obama administration to invest in the initiatives needed to make that happen, at least in the near future. "We may see some minor reallocation of money in 2010, but [the Obama administration's] full influence over the budget won't happen until 2011," said Deniece Peterson, principal analyst at research firm INPUT. "And even then, the economy is the first priority. Most of the specific technology areas that Obama has been talking about are based on their ability to save money and increase efficiency. But there's the typical Catch 22 -- you need money for initial investment. They just won't be a top concern."

Obama has pledged to use innovative Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, social networking, power search engines and real-time video streaming of agency deliberations to engage citizens and encourage open dialogue. He wants to use the White House Web site as a way for the public to review and comment on nonemergency legislation before he signs it into law. He plans to require Cabinet officials to have periodic national online town hall meetings to answer questions and discuss issues.

"I keep thinking about what's involved in creating that kind of visibility -- from changing how agencies report information to the investment in the tools and platform to make it consumable by the average person," Peterson said. "The timeline will have to be very long term for many of these initiatives."

Beyond expense, some argue, security and bandwidth requirements also would be extensive.

One component of his IT agenda that Obama likely will complete more quickly is the appointment of a chief technology officer. According to his IT plan, the individual in this role will be charged with promoting a 21st century IT infrastructure for all federal agencies, and ensuring the safety and interoperability of IT networks. Among the priorities of the CTO will be the development of a national, interoperable wireless network for local, state and federal first responders, as recommended by the 9/11 commission.

Obama also plans to appoint a national cybersecurity adviser to coordinate federal efforts and lead development of national cyber policy. Prospects for either position have not been announced.

Peterson said she is pleased with the president-elect's plan to appoint technology-specific executives, "which we haven't really seen before. That puts weight behind those specific areas that have been ignored in the past."

Obama has not discussed publicly the role that agency chief information officers will play in his administration and whether he will give more authority over IT budgets and policy-making. The Bush administration, for the most part, did not give CIOs significant roles in top-level management decision making.

"The current Office of Management and Budget is taking some halting steps to actually improve the stature of the CIO, basically sending a message that says, 'Back up, let's not go too far,' " said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer for the federal market research firm Federal Sources Inc.

Two weeks ago, OMB backtracked on granting CIOs more authority by removing from a draft version of a memo the requirement for IT executives to report directly to the head of an agency. Most federal CIOs report to the chief financial office or the person in charge of management.

"I think industrywide, CIOs have been losing their luster for a couple years," Bjorklund said. "In government, some expectations [of cost-cutting and return on investment] through IT have not been fulfilled, which has caused the CIO to be increasingly marginalized. Whether an Obama administration that appears to be somewhat tech savvy will refresh the role and give them more of a place at the table, I do not know."

Most IT specialists credit Obama for using technology to raise a record amount of money and to support his grass-roots strategy. They also praise the president-elect for being more specific than most other candidates in the role technology would play in shaping government.

But it is still unclear how the administration will roll out promised IT initiatives. "It's a big question mark," said John Reece, an independent IT consultant and former chief information officer at the Internal Revenue Service. "I don't think any of us have a clue. Here's a man who comes in with a commitment to change, and what could be a better adjunct for change than IT? It will be interesting to see how his use of this opportunity evolves and what role IT plays in his government. So far, we don't know.

"Mr. Obama, please make it clear," he said.