Obama order offers IT chiefs rare leadership chance

After being 'lectured by OMB,' federal CIOs find themselves in a possible policy-shaping role for open government.

OMB's newly appointed director Peter Orszag will coordinate with the CTO on the president's transparency initiative. ( UPI via Landov )

President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday his intention to issue a directive to agencies that outlines the steps they must take to improve the public's access to government information, a process that has the potential to give federal information technology executives more authority to form long-term strategic goals, technology specialists say.

In one of a handful of memorandums released during his first full day as president, Obama said he planned to issue an open government directive, which will instruct agencies to make their operations more transparent and to create a process that asks the public to submit opinions on policy issues and enable collaboration with organizations in the public and private sectors.

Technology will play a big role in complying with the directive, IT experts say. "This is the [first step] to come up with a plan to operationalize the promises to use IT to get a more interactive and transparent government," said Jim Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It will be interesting to see how it plays out [and whether] agencies drag their feet or charge ahead."

The request for input gives members of the federal Chief Information Officers Council, who had few opportunities to influence policies under the Bush administration, to help shape one of the most high-profile items on the Obama agenda, said Alan Balutis, director of the business solutions group at Cisco Systems and a former CIO of the Commerce Department.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for the CIO Council to step up early in the administration and play a strong role, after six years of sitting in the room being lectured by" the Office of Management and Budget, he said. "It's a role the council used to play -- gatherer and collector of the views and opinions of agencies that could guide implementation of [IT] efforts OMB would hand down. Someone has now thrown down the glove for [the CIO Council] to pick up."

Agencies have 120 days to submit recommendations for what the directive should require agencies to do to become more transparent to the yet-to-be-appointed federal chief technology officer, according to the memo . The memo also directs the CTO to coordinate with Peter Orszag, the newly appointed director of the Office of Management and Budget, and with the administrator of the General Services Administration, to sift through the recommendations for the directive.

Obama has emphasized that agencies must harness new technologies to put information online about their operations and policy decisions and to solicit public feedback to identify what the public cares about most. He also instructed agencies to gather input on how to improve opportunities for public participation in government and use "innovative tools, methods and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses and individuals in the private sector."

"Tasking the CTO and GSA to build an open government directive seems to be the right approach," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer for FedSources. "If the highest levels in the White House pay close attention to the development and ongoing execution of the directive, then the directive will at least be directionally successful. The concept is such a bold stroke."

Bjorklund warned that the Obama administration could face resistance from agencies that are reluctant to embrace the technologies needed to open up their operations and solicit public input.

Another hurdle the administration will have to overcome is that neither the CTO nor the administrator of e-government and information technology at OMB, a position previously held by Karen Evans in the Bush administration, has been appointed. In addition, Jim Williams is the acting GSA administrator, having been named to the position by the Bush administration without Senate confirmation as the replacement for the retiring David Bibb. It's unknown whether Williams will be appointed permanently to that position or if Obama will name someone to replace him.

"We'll have to see how actual implementation [of the directive] goes," Balutis said. "[Oversight] is going to these three positions, one of which has not been filled, another that is a holdover appointee, and another that has no [supporting OMB] staff yet appointed. I'd be interested to see how the guidance called for in the memo actually gets issued and what's included."

Balutis said Obama should announce someone to replace Evans very soon.