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Federal CTO Position Needs Formal Description: Report

Without a clear definition, 'it may be difficult for the CTO to affect change in individual federal agencies or systemically throughout the federal government,' states Congressional Research Service report
The role of the federal chief technology officer is poorly defined and Congress may want to act to codify the CTO's responsibilities, according to the Congressional Research Service, which prepares official reports for Congress.

"There is currently no formal position description for the CTO," says the report, written by CRS science and technology policy specialist John Sargent. "Accordingly, the official duties of the CTO remain largely undefined. If the position or office of the CTO is not established by Congress and provided with statutory authorities and a dedicated budget, it may be difficult for the CTO to affect change in individual federal agencies or systemically throughout the federal government."

President Obama's presidential campaign issued a position paper in 2008 that gave the CTO's role a skeletal outline. According to that paper, the CTO would have a hand in cybersecurity, transparency, and interoperability of government functions.

The role, however, has evolved since Obama took office and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra got down to work. Chopra has focused heavily on open government and the administration's technology innovation policy, rather than on internal technology issues within the federal government. (That task has fallen to federal CIO Vivek Kundra). Chopra's agenda lines up with both his history as secretary of technology in Virginia, and with the suggestions of influential observers.

While Chopra has been very active and seems to have an influential voice in many quarters, the report warns that the informal description of the CTO's position may make the role's existence fleeting. "The manner in which the CTO has been established may affect the position/office's ability to transcend presidential administrations. If the authorities of the CTO continue to rely solely upon the President's executive authority, then its continued existence would be at the sole discretion of the current or future President," the report notes. "In contrast, if the CTO were to be established by statute, then the position/office would continue to exist through changes of presidential administrations unless eliminated by statute."

If Congress wishes to legislate the CTO's authority, Sargent wrote, it may want to address the role's mission, duties, authorities, funding, reporting structure, location in the administration, staff, and relationship with other government technology executives.

The report suggests Congress might model the CTO role around a number of other precedents that already exist in government, including agency CIOs and CTOs, efforts during the Bush and Clinton administrations to centralize IT authority and reform government, the Commerce Department's now-defunct Technology Administration, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where Chopra now works.

Organizational issues might be among the most challenging for legislators to tackle, according to report. "Perhaps one of the most difficult and enduring challenges the CTO may face could be "turf wars" associated with overlapping responsibilities with other executive agencies and their principals," it says.

For example, the report continues, even within the White House, several agencies overlap on innovation and technology authority, and both Chopra and OSTP director John Holdren hold the title "assistant to the president."

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