Elbowing for Obama influence between new CTO, new cyber czar

Today’s Friday – usually a big news day in Washington, whether by design (bury bad news late in a deep weekend news hole) or by human error (bureaucrats tried all week to get something done and slipped it in at the deadline).  There should be Obama cabinet announcements today, and meanwhile tech luminaries across the country are sitting by their phones, drumming their fingers and hoping for a call offering them the position of the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer. Norm Lorentz, who was OMB’s first-ever CTO, told C-SPAN this week that “If I were asked, I would serve in a heartbeat.”

But now, just this morning, there’s fresh speculation in a Forbes piece “Seeking Obama’s Cyber Czar” that the CTO post could be overshadowed in influence and presidential access by a less-flashy but more influential nation’s first cybersecurity chief. Andy Greenberg writing this morning reminds us of how that particular post was introduced:

“As president, I’ll make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century,” Obama said in a rare mention of the issue in a speech at Purdue University last July. “I’ll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset and appoint a National Cyber Adviser who will report directly to me.”

Greenberg even reports that “the likeliest candidate for the cyber czar job may have been seated on stage a few feet away from the presidential frontrunner at his Purdue speech. Paul Kurtz, currently a security consultant with Arlington, Va.-based Good Harbor Consulting, may have already been informally offered the post, according to several sources within Washington’s cybersecurity community, although he has privately told colleagues that he is reluctant to accept it.”

After what happened to John Brennan and the CIA position last month, I’m not sure how reliable it is to be “informally offered the post” … Don’t quit the day job.

Meanwhile, regarding the CTO position, I noticed the interesting tidbit buried in an updated Washington Post story last night about President-elect Obama’s likely choice for FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, whom I’ve met at various DC-area tech activities over the past few years – he’s a super-active former FCC official and now venture capitalist.

Sources close to transition officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Genachowski had been recently meeting with key Democratic lawmakers to see if the role of CTO would have policy-making authority and decided against taking the job when he realized the definition of CTO would not include a strong regulatory role. Instead, Genachowski expressed interest in the FCC post. He previously served as chief counsel to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt.

I’m not a huge fan of government regulation, so I took that as a good sign.  But one can also take it as a n indicator that key Washington players may know what the the CTO position shouldn’t be – but they still don’t know exactly what it should be. And inside the Beltway, that’s usually a formula for inaction.

Congressional Quarterly reported this week that the reason the CTO post hasn’t been filled yet is because the Obama team hasn’t yet decided exactly what the job will do: “Because the nation has never had a CTO, Obama either has to work out a job description before he can attract a candidate, or he has to select a candidate and then negotiate the CTO’s duties with his new hire… Washington communications insiders tuned into the CTO show say the extra decision-making appears to be slowing things down.”

 The good news is that outside the Beltway, government CTO’s continue their work without the hoopla. I’ve been following the State of Utah’s CTO, David Fletcher, as he writes a good blog which describes his innovative uses of live web services and tech practices to deliver better information to the citizens of his state about their government’s activities.  Bigtime user of RSS for delivery of government news!  For a good quick summary of his work, check out last week’s blogpost on the past year’s “top-10 e-government / technology accomplishments for the state of Utah.” 

Dave’s also an active twitterer and as you read his microblogging there, you’ll pick up non-obtrusive mentions of his fluent use of technologies like iPhone, Flickr, Windows Live, Twitter, GoogleTranslate, CrunchBase, youTube, and, this week, Microsoft’s Live Mesh.

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6 Responses

  1. Great post, Lewis. I’m wondering what the relationship will be between the Cyber Security officer (hopefully it’s not a “czar” but a Cabinet-level position) and the CTO?


  2. I have such conflicting views about this topic I can barely think straight about it. Sick of federal so-called “czars.” Weary of increased federal bureaucracy, but at the same time, recognize that 1) someone needs to herd the cats working IT as the federal level and 2) cyber security is big enough that it probably ought not continue to live under miscellaneous places; a branch of the military (Air Force), intel, law enforcement investigation. Maybe look to CERT for qualified cyber folks? The Cyber/CTO confusion reflects CIO/CTO role division, which is oft debate and seldom understood. Also, IT folks shouldn’t assume “T” implies just IT. A technology vision and strategy for the country ought to be much, much broader than information technology; energy, robotics, space craft, agriculture, biomechanics, nanotech, etc., etc. But at that point it becomes such a huge domain what could one CTO do? (Especially without a budget or other authority.) Maybe Obama should take a cue from Eisenhower who was advised by a consortium of top minds, quoted referring to them fondly as “my scientists.”


    I think I’m ok that they don’t rush this. Glad to have it a priority topic, though.


  3. CTO or Czar, we don’t need more policy and related wonks; we need execution and accountability. Call them whatever you like, put them wherever you like, unless they can use their pimp hand to bring about the desired results, its all for show. We burn through security and technology (and technology security) chiefs like Fidel goes through Cohibas in part because someone always has a reason why something can’t get done. Real change? If the boss _really_ backs you, then make the hard decisions and tell people “or else.” Follow-up with appropriate rewards or pink slips. We might as well go for a long-shot win because the status-quo ensure a loss.


  4. You may want to check out Yonkly. It’s the first “create your own” microblog to integrate with twitter: http://yonkly.com


  5. Lewis yet again you provide great context and situational awareness on this interesting dynamic. It is always interesting to read the comments you inspire as well.


  6. […] Elbowing for Obama influence between new CTO, new cyber czar […]


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