Yesterday on the White House Blog the President’s Science Adviser relayed President Obama’s announcement that Megan Smith will succeed Todd Park as federal Chief Technology Officer. (That the White House statement is not easily found doesn’t look good, especially for this appointment.) Smith has worked at Google and other Silicon Valley firms, and will be the first woman to hold the position. I was quite wrong about the timing of this announcement, and happily so.
Both The Washington Post and The Atlantic have noted the fluctuating duties of the position over the course of its history. The inability of Congress to pass a law to place this position into law (and their oversight) makes it easier for a federal CTO responsibilities to shift over time. Given Smith’s engineering background and her work on next-generation projects at Google, I can see where The Washington Post thinks the position will become something closer to a technological equivalent of the President’s Science Adviser. It would appear that Smith will, like Park, not hold a concurrent appointment in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as the first CTO (Aneesh Chopra) did.
However, there appear to be two related, but distinct, missions for which the Chief Technology Officer could lead. Getting the government to incorporate more information technology into its mission and services has been, arguably, most of the focus of Smith’s two predecessors. Getting out in front of the policy implications of new technologies and their consequences has not – in my opinion – been a major focus of the Chief Technology Officer. For instance, the CTO was not a major force in the Administration’s Big Data Review. Deputy CTOs, including the newly appointed Alex Macgillivray, and technologists in Cabinet Departments, usually get to tangle with those matters. I think it’s too early to know what the right mix is of people and duties in this area is, so there may be value in maintaining the flexibility of keeping these appointments exclusively under executive branch discretion.