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David Kralik

David Kralik

Posted January 27, 2009 | 12:13 PM (EST)

Chief Technology Officer to be Transformational?


President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to hire the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) which would "ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century." This is a very bold move -- one that should be welcomed by both Democrats and Republicans. With the transition in full swing, now is the time to begin thinking through what attributes and specific goals the CTO must have to be an effective transformational leader.

First, the CTO should not come from within the government or have any previous government experience. The Center for Responsive Politics indicates that by Election Day, Obama had 91 percent of Silicon Valley's technology firms and their workers backing him. That's not a bad place to start looking for qualified applicants and Obama has a deep pool from which to draw upon.

Many scientists agree that the level of knowledge and innovation over the next 25 years will be four to seven times greater than the last 25 years. It is important that this individual understands the enormous potential for the coming wave of new scientific knowledge to fundamentally transform the internal processes of the entire federal government from a world that fails to a world that works.

If Obama ends up hiring a Silicon Valley executive, he should insist they set up their office there. Bringing the CTO to Washington will only result in the urge to create another bureaucrat and entangle them in the red vs. blue culture that currently makes government unproductive. Technology allows for effective telecommuting and we should expect nothing less from the nation's first CTO.

Second, in making this appointment, and all appointments, Obama must put competence before loyalty to avoid the same mistakes of the Bush Administration that resulted in "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Making government more efficient is no small task, and it will require an individual with a proven track record of results, not just loyalty to the incoming president.

Finally, some have suggested the CTO be a member of the Cabinet. However, for this person to be truly effective, Obama needs to send a signal that this position is extremely important to him and has the authority to act on his behalf. The CTO must have direct access to the President in order to be prepared to make big decisions of how to move government into the 21st century.

Success for the CTO should not be measured by whether a new agency is created, how many staff they hire, or even how much the federal government spends on technology. They should instead adopt the Google "20% time" model where a portion of their time is spent on a project of their choice.

One key project should find ways to eliminate government worker performance regulations and modernizing the nation's civil service laws. In an age of digital documents, the job description for the Public Printer of the United States, CEO of the Government Printing Office, still requires experience in physical hand bookbinding and printing. It is currently a violation of E-Gov policies for a government web site to link to sites other than .gov or .mil, for fear of perceived federal endorsement. Examples like these are all too typical of a government that prevents its employees from becoming entrepreneurial public managers.

Second, they should insist that by 2012, any government office or function that isn't 100% transparent and producing completely digital documents will cease to be funded (with appropriate safeguards for national security).

Technology and the Internet were crucial to helping elect Barack Obama president and it will be crucial to the success of his administration. As President-elect Obama continues selecting his Cabinet, he should insist upon a work ethic based on the entrepreneurial values of Silicon Valley, and less on the values of past.

The appointment of a CTO may very well be one of the most important hires in this new administration if it is thought of as an opportunity for enacting real change in how the government functions. For that reason, maybe we should think of the CTO instead as the "Chief Transformation Officer."

Mr. Kralik is the director of internet strategy for American Solutions and the manager of its Silicon Valley office.

This piece was originally published in the Washington Examiner.