McCain, Obama IT reps face off
- By Wyatt Kash
- Oct 28, 2008
Technology representatives for presidential candidates John
McCain and Barack Obama traded contrasting views in Williamsburg,
Va., October 28 on how each candidate would likely tackle a variety of
information technology issues if elected.
Michael Nelson, visiting professor of Internet studies in
Georgetown University's Communication, Culture and Technology
Program and an adviser to the Obama campaign, spoke for the
Democratic candidate. He previously advised the Clinton administration on
technology and was director of Internet technology and strategy at
IBM before switching to academia.
Tim Hugo, executive director of the Free File Alliance, which
offers free tax-filing services, represented the McCain campaign.
He previously worked as a congressional aide and served in George
H.W. Bush's administration.
The two campaign representatives responded to questions from a panel of journalists at the American Council
for Technology and Industry Advisory Council's Executive
Leadership Conference, providing diverging views on how
citizens, companies and government IT initiatives might gain or
lose under their respective leaders.
On the role of contractors and systems integrators:
"We need an ecosystem,' Nelson said. That means looking
for ways to tie federal, state and local IT systems together
through better coordination. 'The federal government can be
the facilitator,' potentially allowing the government to
spend less, he said. Contractors in that environment 'have
the ability to tie the pieces together,' he added. An Obama
administration might also 'rewrite the rules to procure
services more quickly, coordinating with state and local
governments,' Nelson said.
A McCain administration would continue to support the use of
contractors, Hugo said. He warned that he believes an Obama
administration would seek to bring work back into the government
and reduce contractor services. 'It will be bad for the IT
contractor business,' Hugo said, drawing a brief rebuttal
from Nelson to the contrary.
On the importance of transparency:
Nelson said transparency was at the core of Obama's
approach to using informal networking to solicit advice, which was
reflected in the campaign's use of the Web and
social-networking tools. 'It only works if government does a
better job of saying, 'Here's the question,
here's what we want to know,'' he said.
Hugo said McCain would operate differently from the Bush
administrations and acknowledged that the current president
'hasn't done such a good job' on transparency.
Hugo said McCain would do more to ensure it.
On the need for cybersecurity in the face of rising federal
Hugo said McCain would take a strong stand on cybersecurity.
'It's as important as what our military does,' he
said, noting that agency networks have come under attack from
organized forces in China and Russia. Efforts to ensure
cybersecurity must be maintained and increased, he said.
It is imperative that government not engineer security for today
but for every day, he added.
Nelson concurred, saying, 'We need a solid, secure
foundation. You can't do this in an affordable way. But we
have a chance, with the move to cloud computing -- and a new
workforce -- to remake federal infrastructure with security built
He added that a key component of cybersecurity, beyond intrusion
detection and self-monitoring, is the need for "immutable" reports from systems
that record data transactions in logs that cannot be hacked,
'so we know for certain your data was not
He cautioned, however, that new tools won't be deployed if
the government is forced to use five- to 10-year-old
On the issue of trade-offs between privacy and
Nelson said there doesn't need to be a trade-off. There
are ways to strengthen both, he said. However, there is still the
question of how to get government working with contractors to
secure the information flowing between systems.
'It's not a question of privacy and security,'
Nelson said. 'It's privacy, security and transparency.
If you know how [information] has been used, people are willing to
Hugo said the issue comes down to a matter of tolerance.
'The farther we get away from [the 2001 terrorist attacks],
the more people are asking about privacy,' he said,
suggesting that in times of emergency, people are willing to forgo
privacy for the sake of security.
On the role of the chief information officer in the new
'Over the last 30 years,' Nelson said,
'we've seen an evolution in corporations. In 1975, we
had the director of data processing. In 1985, we had the [vice
president] of information management. In 1995, we got the CIO. By
2005, companies were starting to get [chief technology officers] as
well. By 2010-15, the person making the critical IT decisions will
be [the chief executive officer]. I'm convinced Obama does
get this concept' and that he understands, if elected
'to the White House, it's because of IT.'
Nelson said a good illustration of Obama's understanding
was detailed in an article in the September/October issue of
MIT's Technology Review magazine titled, 'How Obama
Really Did It.' http://www.technologyreview.com/web/21222/?a=f
Hugo agreed that the need to understand technology is essential
for every organization.
However, he warned the audience to think about what the
consequences of a Democratic victory would mean to their companies
rather than focusing on how well technology gets used.
On how the new administration might build on e-government and
Hugo said a McCain administration would continue to support
moving forward with IT in support of agencies' missions.
Nelson said, 'The challenge is to go to the next level and
foster collaboration in new ways. To do that requires a new
'I really think we have an opportunity to change the way
government works,' Nelson said. 'I see a different
management style made possible by the Internet and networking
tools. I like to think of it like the open-source software model in
solving our problems. It's more effective, much closer to the
citizen and, in the end, [a way toward] a smaller
Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.