COMMENTARY

How industry can help the new federal CTO

Chopra's position creates an opportunity for more collaboration between the public and private sectors

Aneesh Chopra, appointed and confirmed last May as this country’s first federal chief technology officer, has the opportunity to create in new and meaningful ways a central position that leverages technology, defines initiatives and shares ideas across government. The technology industries that serve the public sector also have a new opportunity: the chance to play a key role in helping the CTO make the most of this new position.

Industry can provide the CTO with valuable insight and guidance regarding which initiatives he should focus on and the best ways to use technology . Industry understands how some areas of government have become bogged down with slow, legacy processes that are bound by existing contracts and schedules. And, more importantly, industry can help the new CTO transform government technology into something more open, agile and responsive.

Chopra and the administration have already made it clear that he is responsible for the country’s technology policy goals. This includes open government and the use of cloud computing and social networking applications to make government data easier to access for the average citizen. He’s leading the charge as part of the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive, a new standard for government agency transparency, collaboration and participation. New sets of data are already online, with the Health and Human Services Department publishing information that previously would cost an individual $100 to acquire. The new Open Government Dashboard, already online, helps citizens visually track the progress of federal agencies as they work toward transparency goals.

But, to take the new CTO position to its full potential Chopra and his team still have challenges to face. 

The CTO Challenge

Perhaps the biggest challenge for CTO Chopra is the physically segmented networks and applications in government departments and agencies. With the advent of virtualization and cloud technologies, new tools are available to government that the CTO can use to eliminate the “one agency, one set of computers” model. With self-defining data and clear security policies in place, multiple agencies would have the opportunity to share an entire data center or cloud – a tremendous gain in technology efficiency as well as transparency for government. Of course, security and privacy requirements must be maintained, and can even be advanced in this multi-tenant model.

Information technology security should top Chopra’s to-do list, which means he’ll need to coordinate with cybersecurity czar Howard Schmidt. Critical on its own and as an integral part of every government initiative, IT security should be transitioned to a consolidated, secure model that enables an evolutionary leap in government computing services. The use of cloud computing for on-demand infrastructure, coupled with an extensible development environment and rich applications, will extend government and community service capabilities. From positive identification of participants to secure data delivery, security is integral for trusted use of government applications. These capabilities are essential to the administration’s goals of transparency, participation and collaboration.

Evolution of the CTO

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Chopra commented that learning from innovative technology company CEOs can lead to nationwide prosperity. Instead of imitation, however, collaboration with industry can generate the most meaningful progress for government.

The appointment of a federal CTO is only the beginning of a new relationship between industry and government – one that will grow and evolve over time. Chopra can jump-start the evolution of government-industry synergy now by assembling joint government-industry task forces, which could bring private-sector best practices to bear on public-sector technology issues. These task forces might have the power to enable agencies to improve the use and deployment of data across all facets of government. By creating successful federal models that can be deployed throughout all of government, the CTO will be able to recommend some of these technology initiatives and solutions, such as cloud computing, to state and local CTOs.

Keeping in mind the size and scope of the CTO’s task – extremely daunting for any one person – we could even see this position evolve into a broader CTO office. Multiple officials working within a common framework and interacting with public and private sector organizations would create more collaborative technology oversight and bring innovative angles from their unique technology vantage points.

This new post presents a unique opportunity for government, industry and the country as a whole, but the success of the CTO will require that industry take an active, anticipatory role. Industry’s innovative thinking can address tough government situations… but not if we keep our best ideas to ourselves.

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