Role, Value of Technology Czar Under Debate

Published February 1, 2009

The most talked-about tech job in government after Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is one that never existed before: Chief Technology Officer. And the tech community is debating why the position—nicknamed “technology czar”—is even necessary.

At press time, Obama had given no specifics about the position other than wanting the person to “make government work better.” But he hinted the new position could be elevated to the status of a cabinet post and have a broad mandate.

Wary of Czar

Some tech experts are wary of the recent obsession with “czars” in the government, arguing they tend to do more harm than good by meddling unnecessarily in the market.

“One should always be disquieted by the concept of a ‘czar’ in government office,” said Barbara Esbin, senior fellow and director of the Center for Communications and Competition Policy at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC. “The U.S. experience of having a ‘drug czar’ should prove a cautionary tale: The problem of drug use certainly did not decrease during the reign of this czar—not to mention the less-than-satisfactory experience of the Russian people under the czars.

“It may be comforting to believe that having a single government official with the title ‘czar’ will mean the government is better positioned to solve problems, but there is little empirical evidence to support this belief,” Esbin said.

Calling for Limits

Obama’s new technology czar, Esbin added, would do well to concentrate on the government’s technology challenges and avoid any urge to regulate the private sector.

“It is my understanding that the role was conceived, at least in part, to address actual problems in technology use within the government,” Esbin said. “That is, different government departments, offices, and agencies—and offices within a single department or agency—were using disparate and incompatible technologies that hindered their ability to perform their missions. Addressing those problems would undoubtedly be a good thing; whether that requires a ‘czar’ holding a cabinet-level position is far from evident.

“Highlighting the importance of technology in public policy is probably not harmful,” Esbin said. “But if creation of such a position did lead to the government choosing winners and losers in the fields of technology and communications, that certainly would not be a good thing.”

Need for Transparency

Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Businesses Software Alliance (BSA) in Washington, DC, said the person in the new position should ensure technology plays a greater role in making government more transparent to citizens by updating government technology systems.

In a letter to Obama, BSA applauded the plan for a technology czar and said information technology can “fundamentally change the relationship between citizens and their government, while improving the level and quality of government services to its citizens.”

BSA added the tech czar should be charged with developing a long-range, comprehensive IT plan that is “flexible, technology-neutral, free of prescriptive mandates, … and protective of citizens’ privacy and security.”

Harnessing IT Power

The group also recommended the technology czar take a longer-term approach to the nation’s IT needs.
The tech czar “should play a role in harnessing the power of IT to serve the nation in key social and economic areas such as health care, environmental protection, education, income inequality, connectivity, and public safety,” Holleyman said.

“Given the key role of information and communications technologies in carrying out the government’s mission, the [tech czar] will naturally focus a great deal of attention on short-term federal IT management,” Holleyman added. “But the [tech czar] should be a true Chief Technology Officer—a visionary who helps the government anticipate and make the most of technology trends.”

Holleyman says he agrees with public policy experts who say the free market, not a tech czar, should determine how technology develops across the general economy, even if the tech czar helps determine which technologies are used by the government.

Phil Britt ([email protected] ) writes from South Holland, Illinois.