Earlier this month Nitin Pradhan, a former Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the Department of Transportation wrote for Information Week about the need for a Department of Technology in the federal government. Or at least what he sees as the need for one. For better or for worse, Pradhan isn’t the first to make the suggestion, and won’t likely be the last. There have also been calls for a federal science department, and for making the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) a Cabinet-level position.
If I read Pradhan’s column correctly, his argument for a Cabinet-level technology department is that there needs to be centralization of technology decision-making across the federal government. (Pradhan also chides the diffusion of Congressional oversight on technology issues, but it’s not a focus of his piece.) Given his current job as part of a ‘federal technology accelerator and partner consortium,’ Pradhan is particularly interested in federal policies to encourage ‘collaborative public-private technology innovations that maximize public value through private growth.’ I think that’s a pretty narrow goal for a technology department, but I don’t think that’s the major issue with proposals like Pradhan’s.
Such proposals tend to ignore the immense challenges of trying to reform federal agencies, even if you are the President. As I wrote the last time on this subject (Block is one of the people who has previously proposed a Department of Technology),
“Scientists and technologists that inject themselves into policy debates ought to have a better sense of the mechanics of politics and policy than what Block demonstrates. But I’m continually disappointed by the reach for a simple fix that is usually neither simple nor formulated in a way that corresponds with the policy environment where the fix would operate. Block’s understanding is far too typical, and probably contributes to the relative inattention our communities receive.”
I am sympathetic of the interest expressed by Pradhan, Block and others to have a more…organized (if that’s the right word) means for supporting federal technology policy. But I think a more effective strategy would focus on adjusting and stabilizing existing entities.
For instance, the establishment of a Chief Technology Officer (and a CIO) for the federal government is something that should survive the current administration. At present, that means putting something into law that requires the appointment (and possibly confirmation) of these individuals and setting some guidance as to how these positions relate to other parts of the government. The Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in this Administration at one time also served as an Associate Director for Technology in OSTP, but now does not. Since both the CTO and the Director of OSTP report directly to the President, I understand why the CTO is no longer officially part of OSTP. But that relationship still needs clarity. And I think in finding that clarity you can help find the authority and responsibility to guide technology investments that Pradhan is looking for.
It would also be easier to do than create another Cabinet department.