SAN JOSE, Calif. President-elect Barack Obama pledged to name the first U.S. federal chief technology officer as part of his platform as a candidate, but he has left the exact description of the job loosely defined so far.
No surprise that we at EE Times think the idea of a cabinet-level tech exec is a great and timely one. Here are our recommendations on what the job should focus on and eight candidates to consider.
We'd like to get your take on our list of proposed candidates, so see our online poll. If you have other thoughts on the job or candidates for it, let us know by leaving a comment at the bottom of this story.
Here is the job description as sketched out in the technology policy articulated on candidate Obama's Web site:
"The nation's first Chief Technology Officer [will] ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."
The draft is a good one, as far as it goes. It suggests Obama's thinking may be initially focused on issues such as availability of broadband communications and effectiveness of government IT systems.
We would suggest the federal CTO may need a chief information officer focused on IT infrastructure issues on staff to address such issues. But the CTO's purview needs to be broader.
Even a quick glance through Obama's policy statement shows the far-ranging technology issues waiting to be addressed today. Alternative energy and climate change are potentially the two biggest tech issues that face the incoming administration.
Early in the campaign, Obama pledged to spend $150 billion over ten years on clean energy. He also set a goal for the U.S. to get 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025. In addition to overseeing such efforts, the CTO should drive an initiative to update the U.S. electrical grid, a massive and much-needed effort.
On a separate front, the health care system is going through an historic shift to more networked systems, driving care delivery away from the hospital and into the home. The Obama administration will need technical input on this transition for its planned reform of the U.S. health care system.
There are other pure policy issues where a U.S. CTO could play an important role as an advisor and perhaps even a catalyst.
For example, the patent system is swamped in applications and courts are handling a rising load of cases litigating intellectual property rights. Clashes between the interests of electronics and medical industries as well as big corporations and individual inventors have stymied progress on patent reform. The right individual could help broker agreements on a way forward.
A CTO could also provide input on immigration policy. The electronics industry in particular has learned the difficulties of balancing the need to keep an open door to the world's best talent while protecting U.S. jobs.
Finally, the federal government has failed to fund legislation that would increase basic science research, long in decline in the U.S. Finding the money will be even tougher in the current economic climate, but the CTO could act as a much-needed cabinet-level advocate for research as the best long term investment in a strong economy. The person could also help coordinate how the money is spent across the many, often competing government research groups.
It's a huge job, and maybe more than any one person can tackle. Ideally the candidate Obama picks will be someone who is intellectually curious and capable of building an effective staff that burrows into each of these important areas.