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Cyber Coordinator vs Cyber Czar

Many pundits and federal government observers are already raising the question,  "Will a government cyber czar improve national security?". 

The question, which arose from a series of new and significant cybersecurity policy moves announced by President Barack Obama in a White House speech May 29, is fair, but ill-informed. 

First, let's drop the czar part. This position has in fact been defined as a coordinator, with no operational responsibility or authority to make policy unilaterally. So let's keep the role and expectations in check.

Second, what's different and more important about this announcement, compared to past cyber space initiatives, is the fact that the president himself put a big pile of political chips on the table in support of making America's digital infrastructure more secure. That makes a huge difference, regardless of what title you give his lead coordinator.

Third, the recommendations in his May 29 cyberspace policy announcement are well-grounded from work originally prepared last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Commission on Cybersecurity, which had gained broad public and private sector support. So there is strong consensus and significant momentum behind most of the policies the president outlined last Friday.  It is true, and Obama made it clear, much work remains to be done to pull together a coherent national strategy and it will take time. But with Obama saying he's now watching, many disparate efforts are likely to get fresh, rigorous, and more coordinated attention.

Of course, the questions of who will get the job--and will he or she have the political skills to reconcile such a broad portfolio of competing cybersecurity challenges--remain vital concerns.

But by President Obama declaring publicly that he would select this individual personally, that this person would sit on both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, and that he or she would have regular access to the president, all point positively toward the notion that the cybersecurity coordinator can be effective, if not the final authority. And in all likelihood the national cybersecurity strategy due to be delivered to the president will prove to be more balanced and pragmatic than would likely emerge under the traditional notion of a czar.  For as we all know, and most czars discover, the pretense of power typically comes with too little authority to get substantive things done. In this case, the person to watch is Obama, not his czar.

--Wyatt Kash

Posted by Wyatt Kash on May 31, 2009 at 9:39 AM


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