Experts lay out the criteria for choosing Biden's CTO, who will be faced with using tech to tackle everything from climate change to vaccine distribution

  • It's not clear who President-elect Joe Biden will pick as his chief technology officer, but it's readily apparent that whoever it is will have plenty of big problems to tackle from day one.
  • Notably, the US CTO doesn't have a lot of direct power: Their job's real impact comes with working with different agencies to help them come up with tech-based strategies for everything from climate change to vaccine distribution.
  • That broad scope may also prove the biggest challenge, with so many problems to tackle all at once.
  • Experts suggest that perhaps a better way to think about the CTO role is as a consultant who can help come up with repeatable strategies for government agencies to use technology to boost their efficiency.
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Most of us have a good handle on the job of a chief technology officer (CTO) in mundane businesses. That individual develops an organization's tech policies and procedures, advises the C-Suite on how IT can contribute to the company's strategic direction, and directs the use of digital resources to enhance products and services.

The CTO of the United States is just like that – except where it isn't.

Importantly, it's not clear who may get tapped as President-elect Joe Biden's CTO; the transition team hasn't announced its short list of people under consideration. Yet it behooves us to consider the expectations for whoever is appointed to the job. Among those issues are the things that the incoming US CTO needs to be prepared to handle and the job requirement checkboxes that can help identify the ideal person to do those things.

This isn't as simple as cribbing a random CTO job listing from LinkedIn. The position, an official in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, didn't exist until 2009. President Barack Obama tapped the first CTO, Aneesh Chopra, to "promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities — from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure," as the President explained at the time. Obama had two more CIOs during his tenure, Todd Park and Megan Smith; the Trump administration's CTO has been Michael Kratsios.

With a new Biden administration starting soon, it makes sense to contemplate what lies ahead. Because it's such a new job, the role is malleable. The individual can shape its duties and emphasize the initiatives that the administration deems most important. 

"A lot of discretion goes into the mandate of the CTO," said Jennifer Pahlka, former US deputy CTO under President Obama. One reason is the number of similar positions. Each cabinet department has its own CIO who mandates agency technical standards, for instance. "It is by its nature a really collaborative position," Pahlka said. The US CTO gets things done by influencing others both inside and outside of the White House. "It's a sort of influence portfolio more than anything else."

"Influence" means money, too. "In government, unless you have a budget, you really can't get anything done," Rasiej said. "You have no power."

So that raises two issues: what does the job entail, and what projects should be top of mind?

Consider the agenda

Because the CTO role has existed in only two administrations, there isn't a long history of expected priorities. In any case, the challenges reflect the needs of the time (Megan Smith had to wean the White House off Blackberries and floppy disks) and the goals of each administration, which are bound to differ.

A CTO can help form visionary approaches and also serve as a voice of reason. A government official can have a great idea that isn't feasible, for instance. "It's become even more of an imperative that the President have a perspective on technology that is commensurate with its true impact on its role in our society," said Andrew Rasiej, CEO and cofounder of Civic Hall.

Imagine the challenges of Biden's CTO. Which of these do you tackle first?

  • Responding to the pandemic. How should the government manage data, such as contact tracing and vaccine delivery systems? That discussion immediately raises security, privacy, and ethics issues, which means creating data standards and enforcing compliance. Even if the states control some programs, a CTO needs to orchestrate the conversation as well as help agencies use open data and expand data science capabilities.
  • Address net neutrality topics. The CTO's guidance will affect what happens to Section 230 — the law that protects social media companies from legal liability for what their users post, now the target of Republican ire — and efforts to protect free speech online.
  • Ensure equal access to technology country-wide. Remote work, remote education, and remote health are now core concepts. But these services are not available to all; much of America lacks basic internet access.
  • Improve government services. Any long term plan must include modernizing and securing government computing infrastructure. It suggests improving transparency and lowering costs, such as programs like the police data initiative and work on trusted identity standards. And, as with any political transition, decisions need to be made about what technology projects to continue, rebuild, or abandon.
  • Guide the conversation about regulation of Big Tech companies and broadband. Government experts may be able to speak to the business and competitive issues raised by Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and other powerful companies. However, someone without an agenda needs to provide a context – and often explain how the technology works.
  • Look forward. Climate change. The healthcare system. All those big topics that were shunted aside while we deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Advise decision-makers about next-generation technology. Technologists have a grasp of the impact of AI, predictive analytics, facial recognition, virtual reality, and other emerging tech, and the ethical challenges each of them raise.

And all of that is just for starters.

A less obvious yet vital responsibility is attracting superb technologists to work in public service. "We're in a great position for people who want to serve," said Pahlka. "We need to put them in the position to do amazing work."

What it takes to accomplish that is a matter of debate – including determining the size of the team. "The government needs someone who can successfully recruit talent at scale, not just by being an influencer, but by ensuring that incoming talent can be integrated into existing teams and thrive," said Danah Boyd, partner researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of the Data and Society Research Institute. "Parachuting Silicon Valley talent into Washington DC to 'fix government' will end in abysmal failure."

Write your own job description

So what does it take to accomplish all this? How can any of us know who is best suited? The job description depends on what you expect from the job – and few of those criteria are grounded in technical expertise.

The CTO needs to put human needs first, said, Pahlka, using a mission-driven approach. The table stakes are using technology to make human's lives better, she said. Sure, the person needs technology proficiency, but in the context of understanding the problems, and using all levers available to solve them.

That means the CTO job requisition includes "a service leadership mentality." The ideal US CTO is deeply collaborative and humble, who doesn't care about getting the credit. "You'll work on a problem with career public servants. You'll be there for a couple of years. Focus on their success, not yours," Pahlka adds.

For those reasons, both Pahlka and Rasiej believe that this new CTO should be someone who already knows how government works, to minimize the learning curve, and has a track record of getting results. The experience doesn't have to be from a federal position, Pahlka adds; perhaps the person led a digital team at the state level or in a large city.

It might be time to think beyond the CTO role

However, that criteria is modeled on the US CTOs in the Obama and Trump administrations. It might be time to revisit those assumptions.

"Titles like CTO and VP of Engineering often mean different things in industry than they mean in government," said Boyd.

"When these roles are responsibly distinct in industry, the former tends to connote the thought leader who can help sell the vision for the organization (if not directly shape large-scale architecture of a product) while the latter tends to focus more on managing and enabling the technical team itself, ensuring that there are not barriers to undermine their work, and recruiting talent. Unfortunately, in non-technical organizations, the CTO turns into the glorified 'can solve all technical problems' person which is the absolutely wrong way of thinking about this role."

Boyd ultimately recommends that the incoming administration look for a VP of Engineering rather than a CTO.

"They need someone who will work hard to unblock the barriers that existing talent faces so that those working in government agencies can thrive," she said. "This will require transforming procurement procedures, changing the hiring protocols and HR infrastructure, and building the processes to ensure that teams can work effectively and share information strategically."

Or maybe the job should be up-leveled. Rasiej had urged the Obama administration to elevate the CTO. "You need a voice at the table at the cabinet level, advising the President on the role of technology not only in government, but in society as a whole," Rasiej said.

Information technology, and data — data collection, data privacy, data security — are embedded in every single bit of American life and continues to accelerate at an exponential rate. "We created the Department of Energy after the oil crisis in the 70s, under Carter. In the same way, after September 11, we created the Department of Homeland Security," Rasiej said. "We now need to create a US Department of Technology." That cabinet position, he feels, should focus on the distribution, the potential, and also the threats associated with information technology.

Ultimately, much of what the role looks like will depend on who gets the job — something we won't know until the Biden team makes an official pick.

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