Obama has not yet articulated any compelling public interest for creating a national CTO, however that role may be defined.
Furthermore, the president-elect has not addressed the obvious corollary of his proposal: a national CTO would be powerless and ineffectual without statutory authority and a corresponding budget and bureaucracy. To make his vision of a national CTO a reality, Obama would need to propose legislation that would establish a new agency, which would probably absorb the functions of existing agencies.
Of course, we already have just such an agency: the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is under the Department of Commerce and describes itself as “the President's principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy.” Does Obama simply want to give NTIA’s head, the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, a new job title, “National CTO,” or is he proposing something different? Does he also want to invest this position/agency with additional responsibilities? Does he want to split it from Commerce and reconstitute it as a separate agency? None of this is clear at this point.
That’s not to say making NTIA a separate agency would necessarily be a bad idea (but I have no opinions on the matter, one way or another). Periodically, the U.S. government has created new agencies from the programs formerly held by established bureaucracies, and/or to administer new laws. Sometimes, an overriding national emergency creates an urgent demand for a new regulatory bureaucracy. Excuse me for putting a cynical spin on this, but the Department of Homeland Security will always be the 9/11-reaction agency…just as the Environmental Protection Agency is the “Rachel Carson Silent Spring Earth Day” reaction agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission is the “1929 stock market crash” reaction agency, and the Federal Reserve System is the “Panic of 1907” reaction agency.
OK, I’m oversimplifying, but only slightly. But I’m not sensing any great urgent national call for a CTO-like position. More critical, at this historical juncture, is a totally reconstituted financial regulatory authority to replace the Federal Reserve in the wake of the current meltdown.
If we need any sort of national CTO right now, maybe it should be a Chief Transparency Officer. What do I mean by that? Well, the Obama campaign pledged to “use cutting-edge technologies to ...creat[e] a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens.”
What this suggests is a role for business intelligence and performance management technologies in the federal government’s outreach to citizens. What I’m thinking of, and discussed in a recent Forrester blog post, is some sort of online, continuously refreshed scorecard, dashboard, or report that measures how well the government is serving its constitutents, as measured across many key performance indicators. Or, at the very least, such a scorecard might illustrate how well President Obama is living up to his campaign promises or stacking up against, say, the government’s performance under the outgoing President Bush.
Hmmm….a national government transparency scorecard. Only an aggressive push from the incoming president can put this sort of initiative on a legislative fast track. And fresh blood, in the form of a national Chief Transparency Officer from an activist background, would be needed to sell it to a skeptical public and federal bureaucracy.
Yeah, we could give the government scorecard program to the NTIA, but that would bury it deep in the bureaucracy and probably doom it to failure. The Chief Transparency Officer would need to report directly to the president, who should be promoting it as a key component of his efforts to open government to deep scrutiny.