What Obama's National CTO Must Do

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 01-07-2009

President-Elect Barack Obama is reportedly close to naming a national technology chief, thus fulfilling a campaign promise that set off a storm of speculation throughout the IT industry.

Bob Otto, who spent almost four decades in government IT management, most recently as CIO and CTO of the U.S. Postal Service, believes the national CTO must come in with a clear strategic vision, strong leadership qualities, and an ability to bring together the often disconnected bureaucracy of federal, state and local government IT organizations.

But he's quick to admit that it won't be easy. "Can you think of a larger piece of transformation work than, in essence, trying to standardize and change, for the better, the federal, state and local level the services and data that people get are seamless?" Otto says. "That's a major transformation."

And Otto says that government is ready for all the change President-Elect Obama expects. One problem: some federal agencies spend up to almost two-thirds of their resources to maintain legacy applications. That level of spending deters from the type of innovation needed to truly reform the nation's IT operations.

A national CTO will bring an element of leadership that hasn't previously existed. "What's happening today is that those [federal] CIOs are listening to the secretaries, deputy secretaries and under secretaries of their agencies and trying to support their missions--they're not supporting the total mission of the country," Otto says. Obama's selection (and his or her staff) should have direct oversight over the IT leaders at the numerous government agencies and departments to ensure the vision is understood and implemented efficiently.

Otto doesn't think the national CTO needs to be a sitting IT executive, but he or she does need to bring a combination of business and technology savvy, along with a track record of change management success. (Otto wouldn't say if he's been contacted by Obama's transition team about the job, but did say he'd consider it if offered.)

Furthermore, the appointed tech chief must be ready to make a long-term commitment--likely through Obama's first or second terms, if reelected. "You can't come in and create a vision and some high-level plans and then take off," Otto says. "You have to stay and make sure these things get carried out."

Despite the obvious challenges of managing a massive bureaucracy--especially through a recession--Otto believes it won't be as hard some would imagine. "There are a lot of great CIOs on all government levels that just need some guidance," he says. "And it doesn't require billions of dollars to be done. Many of the agencies have money--they just need to reprioritize where to spend it." 

And he has a priority list for the incoming national technology leader: 

1. Set the vision of where you're going to go
2. Establish a strategy for the nation's technological architecture
3. Formulate an electronic network linking all federal, state and local governments
4. Create a policy for managing data across organizations
5. Set both minimal and maximum security levels 
6. Consolidate infrastructure by cutting redundant or unnecessary government data centers  
7. Deal with skilled resources and "knowledge drain," focusing on motivating and retaining talented government IT managers through training and compensation.

And once the dust settles, the national tech chief will find an enthusiastic audience. "[He or she will] find that the CIOs will be receptive to this," Otto says. "They're looking for leadership."

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