Editor’s note: Jake Sorofman is vice president of marketing for Raleigh-based rPath, a developer of virtualization and cloud computing solutions and services. (Have a different opinion? Send it to email@example.com.)
RALEIGH, N.C. – The excitement leading up to the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama got me thinking about what we can expect for the next four — or eight — years.
Clearly, the Obama Administration enters office on a platform for change — and at a time during which the demand for change has nearly unanimous support. With historically high approval ratings, President Obama has significant currency to trade on. This means that he has the unique opportunity to transform ideas into action, proposals into policy, and rhetoric into an actionable agenda for change.
I think it’s fair to say that our collective support for this agenda transcends political ideology. Perhaps I’m seeing what I want to see through the rose-colored lenses of an idealist (delusion beats disillusion any day!), but I sense that partisanship has given way to a sense of necessary cooperation. After all, when the stakes are this high, partisan division can only lead to the wrong outcome.
But let’s get back to what all of this means for IT. President Obama is due to appoint the first cabinet-level Chief Technology Officer. Inspired idea, to be sure, but whether this role has value will depend on the person and the definition of the role.
It’s far too easy to equate CTO to “Technology Czar,” harkening thoughts of the steady stream of “[insert burning issue here] Czars” appointed by Presidents past, which have had little impact on problems they set out to address. I’ll leave analysis to the pundits on why these posts have met such a dismal fate (if I were pressed to explain the failure, I’d surely start with the use of “czar,” which has always sounded a bit too heavy-handed, autocratic, and mildly scary to my ear).
Of course the definition and duties of the CTO can have vastly different meanings; for one organization, CTO may be more scientist than administrator, spending his or her time imagining possibilities on distant horizons — with an emphasis on possibilities over outcomes. For another, the CTO may have a far more pragmatic role in implementing technology and be held to a standard of accountability for solutions that yield returns on closer and more predictable horizons. Both important roles, but I would suggest that President Obama’s CTO should be more of the latter.
History tells us that the private sector is the better steward of innovation. This is no surprise — more independence of thought, fewer political hurdles, and a more attractive system of economic incentives. Large bureaucracies may create drag on new ideas, but they have the potential to act as powerful implementers.
That’s the opportunity for the Obama Administration: Bring together the vast resources of the federal government and private sector innovation, trading on unprecedented political currency to affect change. Automate paper-based processes; use the web for transactions, transparency, and collaboration; and use what’s available in the private sector to make the public functions … function.
Today, the U.S. remains far behind many other less well-heeled countries in the application of technology to the administration of its key functions. As citizens, we’ve all witnessed this first hand. There is certainly no shortage of technology innovation happening in the private sector. What we hope for in the first CTO of the United States of America is very much what we hope for from the incoming Obama administration: Someone who can turn ideas into action and rhetoric into an actionable plan for change.
That’s (an IT agenda for) change we can all believe in.