Op-ed: Tech czar is maybe good, maybe bad

Whether a presidentially-chosen chief technology officer is a good idea depends totally on the expectations and responsibilities of the job, Frank McDonough writes.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he would appoint a chief technology officer -- a tech czar -- for the federal government. On the surface, the idea suggests that cross government collaboration between agencies and their data bases would occur, something agencies have resisted to date.

A czar can be a good or a bad idea depending on the expectations and responsibilities of the job. Assume that one of the czar’s responsibilities will be to get the agencies in the Homeland Security Department to cooperate with each other and share data. It is not likely that the agencies such as the Secret Service, with access to the president, and the Coast Guard, the oldest agency in the government, will work easily with the other 26 agencies in DHS.

Again, assume that one of the czar's duties is to help the Internal Revenue Service, DHS and the Federal Aviation Administration to modernize. These are impossibly complex programs, and, even people who have worked on these systems for 20 years do not understand all their intricacies. A newly appointed tech czar, even with unusual qualifications and daily support from the president and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, could not make major contributions to these and hundreds of similar systems in government.

One question is whether the czar should be from industry or government. Either choice has advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that a czar appointed from industry will have no chance to succeed without deep knowledge about the government and its culture. At the same time, someone from government who knows how it works could be more successful, but will find it difficult to gain the respect of his or her current peers.

Should existing chief information officers be candidates? Unfortunately, most of the current CIOs have marginal backgrounds and, to be generous, they are only somewhat successful in their current jobs. Not one of the current CIOs is a good candidate to take on the whole of government. In 1996, when 25 government and congressional officials worked on bill to create CIOsl, we were unanimous that the law should specifically not create a CIO sitting atop the entire government because such a role is impossible. We concluded that a government-wide CIO would end up meddling in the affairs of agencies while adding no real value to their programs.

However, a czar could have success building on Web 2.0 technologies. Obama has strong experience in this sector of technology. He probably will work to build on the technologies that his team used in the presidential campaign to create the network of two million supporters and raise gobs of money. This area, social networking, is open to innovation in the government. A czar who focuses in this area will have clear sailing because there is no competition at present. 

Social networking does not address the key to managing government, which is getting control of the transactions. However, no one person in a tech czar job could ever do that, anyway.

It is recommended that the tech czar avoid getting bogged down in the complex agency-run legacy systems that operate the government programs; and, instead, focus on untouched areas that directly serve the president's outreach goals.

Frank McDonough led GSA’s then-Office of Information Technology Policy. He has been a leader in watching how governments worldwide use IT. He can be reached at frank@frankamcdonough.com.