The CTO's challenge

THE NEW FEDERAL chief technology officer — a position President-elect Barack Obama plans to reintroduce — might technically represent the government, but whoever gets the job will need to focus on a handful of critical areas in which information technology can be used effectively. A lack of focus or an effort to boil the ocean by addressing every agency at once will almost certainly result in failure.

That’s the opinion of Norm Lorentz, who knows something about the job. Lorentz became the first CTO at the Office of Management and Budget in 2002 and was not replaced when he left the position in August 2003. He now is vice president at the Council for Excellence in Government. I talked to Lorentz about the responsibilities of this role last month on C-SPAN’s public affairs show, “The Communicators.”

The new administration will take office facing a number of problems of crisis proportion that could take attention from IT policy: wars on multiple fronts, an economic meltdown and an increasingly unmanageable system for providing and paying for health care. But these issues also could be opportunities for a CTO, Lorentz said, because efficient use of IT can help manage them.

Titles such as chief information officer and CTO can be vague and vary in meaning from one organization to another. The first job in re-establishing the CTO will be to define its place in the hierarchy. As Lorentz sees it, the CIO operates in the White House’s OMB, setting IT policy. The CTO’s job is to oversee the injection of IT into agency missions.

A successful CTO should have at least a minimal understanding of technology, Lorentz said. He defined it as “being able to chew gum and walk at the same time.” The real focus should be on agency missions and how IT can be used to perform them more effectively. Technology is a means to an end, and the CTO must keep focused on the end.

Although an effective CTO should have a seat at the table where decisions are made, Lorentz does not see the CTO as a Cabinet-level position. The job’s real work will begin after policy and missions are set at the upper levels, and the assistant secretaries ask for help in implementing them.

An ability to apply technology and improve performance is more crucial to the position than government experience, Lorentz said. Most of the people being mentioned as possible candidates for CTO are from industry and academia rather than government, and they include luminaries such as Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, now chief Internet evangelist at Google, and Ed Felten, a computer science professor at Princeton University.

Add Lorentz’s name to the list, too. If asked to return to government as CTO, “I would serve in a heartbeat,” he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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