What Does the Chief Technology Officer of a Country Do?


It’s not an easy question—during President Obama's administration, “technology” has meant different things at different times.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama appointed Megan Smith the new U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Previously a vice president at Google, Smith ran the company’s secretive skunkworks and led business development—helping to acquire the products that would become Picasa, Google Earth, and Google Maps. 

Obama also appointed Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s former general counsel, as deputy U.S. CTO.

Smith will serve as only the third national CTO and Macgillivray is the first appointee to his role. CTO is a position of Obama’s invention, one he promised to create during his campaign. It’s a symbolic position for an administration which has long spoken of an eventual happy union of government and technology.

And when considering the president’s five years in office, technology becomes one of the sole connective threads. This is the man who was called “the Internet candidate,” whose early Middle East policy embraced online social networks, whose second term has been hampered because of the Snowden leaks and—somewhat more mundanely—a broken website.

But to me, something’s off here. Technology as a publicly considered concept has changed enormously over the past half-decade. In February 2007, when Obama first proposed the position, “you” (of -Tube renown) had just been namedTime’s Person of the Year. Tech companies were focused on building giant networks where people would gather en masse. Nowadays, a tech firm is more likely to produce a tiny, niche smartphone app than a gigantic social website.

Can we track how the changing nature of technology (even digital technology, which is usually what’s intended) is understood by the White House? Other writers have asked what the CTO should do: Can we, by looking at the White House’s communication about them, figure out what CTOs are supposed to do in the first place?

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Today’s tech firms and yesterday’s tech firms are similar in one big, indisputable way: They are firms—private corporations. So when the candidate Obama first proposed the idea of a government technology czar in a 2007 position paper, he borrowed its title (CTO) from the corporate world. His new administration wouldn’t introduce some measly advisor to the White House—there’d be no labels like “Assistant to the President, Associate Director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy.” (Though that is, in fact, what the CTO position is officially called.)

No, this new government position would be a C-level executive:

Obama will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century.

And what would they do, beyond functioning as a federal sysadmin? According to the same paper, the CTO would “focus on transparency” and ensure “that each arm of the federal government makes its records open and accessible as the E-Government Act requires.” They would also, the paper says, try to get more information back from citizens—a kind of nationwide comment box—and help implement a national wireless network for emergency responders.

Most importantly, though, the CTO would sit around and know how technology companies actually work. Because in 2007 technology was a growth area in a still pre-recession economy: “In the 21st century, our economic success will depend not only on economic analysis but also on technological sophistication and direct experience in this powerful engine of our economy.”

Then the rest of campaign happened and Obama won.

On April 18, 2009, the now-President Obama announced the government’s first CTO. It was Aneesh Chopra, who hailed not from a tech firm but from the office of Virginia governor Tim Kaine. Kaine served as Virginia’s Secretary of Technology. The announcement came in his weekly radio address. Obama spent only a few sentences on Chopra—the announcement mostly dwelled on former Advisory Board CEO Jeffrey Zients joining the administration as “Chief Performance Officer.”

But there were a few sentences on Chopra. The new CTO would “promote innovation,” Obama said. This innovation would include everything from “creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure.” With technology, Obama said, “we will get our deficits under control” and “put an end to the mismanagement that has plagued our government.”

There’s not much of a hard sense of what digital technology is, here. What’s interesting to me is how much the concept of technology has changed to allow it to do whatever Obama needs, politically. Budgets needed to be reduced, so technology could do that. Bureaucracy needed to be less bureaucratic—and what do you know, technology could do that too.

It’s the first time, too, Obama described the CTO and tech in general as fostering “innovation.” In terms of general amelioratives, nothing could be as all-purpose: Innovation could somehow create jobs but also lower healthcare costs. In the face of a laggard economy, innovation could always be gesticulated at.

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Chopra served for nearly three years, eventually stepping down in January 2012. John Holdren—the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—sent him off with a blog post on the bureau’s website. Chopra, Holdren wrote, had helped set a few policies, including developing that public safety network the President had talked about as a candidate.

And among Holdren’s list was this: Chopra helped “establish a set of Internet Policy Principlesincluding the call for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.” It was the first time privacy had been mentioned in connection with the job.

The CTO slot went unfilled for a few months. In March 2012, Holdren announced the new assistant director and CTO: Todd Park. Park, like Chopra, hadn’t come out of a private firm, but had been the old CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In his welcome announcement, Holdren singled out one of Park’s most successful efforts:

He led the successful execution of an array of breakthrough initiatives, including the creation of HealthCare.gov, the first website to provide consumers with a comprehensive inventory of public and private health insurance plans available across the Nation by zip code in a single, easy-to-use tool.

These were the good old days, before ignominy shrouded that troubled URL. When Park began, HealthCare.gov was still something to be proud of. The website and its troubled implementation would wind up dominating Park’s tenure. In his final months on staff, he spent much of his time managing its rescue.

And in this week’s announcement of Smith and Macgillivray’s appointment, there were new appearances and timely allusions as well. The CTO, writes Holdren (again), will “unleash the power of technology, data, and innovation” in the administration.

Technology, check; innovation, check—but data is a new one! Indeed, the “transparency” of the 2007 announcement has been replaced by openness and data. Privacy, from Chopra’s tenure, is here too: Macgillivray will focus on “theintersection of big data, technology, and privacy.”

Thinking about technology is often instrumental thinking. We ask ourselves, what can this do for me? But a look at how Obama’s administration has talked about technology through the years reveals that the concept of technology itself is as informed by need as by changing hardware and software. Sure, data gets a mention because that’s now the rubric we use to understand any large bulk of information, but otherwise, “technology” might be described as whatever you need it to be.

(Image via Vacclav/Shutterstock.com)