Google-enabled government starts with Obama's CTO

But when it comes to IT, the feds are nothing like the private sector

President-elect Barack Obama's plan to build a Google-enabled government began modestly this week with its new Change.gov Web site, which includes the means to apply for a job in the new administration.

One of the people this administration plans to hire: a CTO to manage federal IT. The person selected will be the nation's first chief technology officer.

From the job description, the CTO job does not sound exciting, and may well have been copied from an IT management 101 textbook. It says the job of the CTO will be to lead federal IT and "ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

Paul Strassman, a former CIO of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Defense Department's Director of Defense Information, said what the administration has to do first is to define its management issues and information policy and then the technology will follow. "The question is --what are the objectives that are is he trying to achieve?" Strassman said.

One thing that Obama does want is what has been called a Google-enabled government. That involves improving the transparency and access to the vast oceans of government data, in part, by moving this data into universally accessible formats. Many federal agencies have put data online, but use different formats.

And who will be the CTO to lead this effort? The media rumor mill has cited just about every single big name in tech, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who met with Obama Friday as a member of the new administration's economic advisory team; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.

Among the people on the transition team helping Obama select a CTO is Sonal Shah, head of global development initiatives at Google, and Julius Genachowski, the co-founder of LaunchBox Digital, a Washington-based firm that helps start-up businesses.

Whether someone on the level of Ballmer or Schmidt would give up their day jobs for the frustrations of dealing with federal agencies is doubtful.

The White House may control the IT budget, but the federal government agencies have their own CIOs, management, methods and turf. The power of any CTO is limited, said Dave Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief technologist at the FCC.

"Government agencies can drag their feet when they are being pulled in directions they don't want to go," said Farber.

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