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The Chief Technology Officer of the United States is leaving. What now?

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park (Photo credit: Department of Labor)

It wasn't all that long ago that having a Chief Technology Officer of the United States was a novel concept. Many in the tech world were thrilled in 2007 when then-candidate Barack Obama pledged to name a U.S. CTO* who would work to "ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century." Seventeen months later, President Obama named his first pick for the job, a man he said was "charged with looking at ways technology can spur innovations that help government do a better and more efficient job.”

The first CTO was followed by a second, and the post became an established part of the administration. But as the job comes open for a third time, it's a chance to take stock of how the job has evolved, and in particular one answered question: What is the right role for the nation's CTO?

Todd Park, who took over the job of U.S. CTO nearly two and a half years ago, is returning home to California by the end of August. He will, according to those familiar with the situation, remain part of the White House team, helping to recruit technologists to government service and keeping an eye on how the evolution of tech might impact the creation of public policy.

Park had taken over the reins from the inaugural CTO, Aneesh Chopra. Chopra was named to the Senate-confirmed post in 2009 (after what many complained was too long a wait by the White House to pick a candidate), and served for two and three-quarters years.

No two people fill any one government job in the same way, and that was the case with Chopra and Park. Chopra, who had been the secretary of technology for the state of Virginia from 2006 through 2009, focused on his role as an advisor and a convener, fulfilling the framing of the job by Obama, who, in naming Chopra, presented him as someone who would "promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities – from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure." Chopra, who would go on to run for lieutenant governor of Virginia, put his attention to opening up government data, advancing federal standards for tech, and using technology to get the public involved in the work of government.

Park had, arguably, a more hands-on approach. That was, perhaps, partly a result of his background -- Park had served as the "Entrepreneur-in-Residence" and CTO at the Department of Health and Human Services from 2009 to 2012 and before that was the co-founder of the healthcare start-ups Athenahealth and Castlight -- and his nature; it is practically required by executive order that any description of Park include the world "energetic." But it was also a product of the times: Park stepped in to help fix after its troubled launch in the fall of 2013.

And Park's departure reopens the debate over what the nature of the U.S. CTO role should be.

As Obama conceived it, the CTO is meant to be a sort of right-hand-geek to the president, in at-will service to -- and with reporting lines running directly toward -- the Oval Office. There have been repeated pushes by some on Congress to make the job a more formal one, required by law and perhaps even a Cabinet-level post. Under some of those plans, the existence of a U.S. CTO wouldn't depend on the president's desire to have one. But interest in those approaches seems to have died down in recent years, in part, perhaps, because of the respect Park has widely commanded but also out of a realization that a president forced to have a technologist by his or her side isn't likely to listen to that adviser. Moreover, the amorphous nature of the job is thought by some to give the president a welcomed flexibility to use the CTO however he or she sees fit.

But some see in Park's role in the weaknesses in that thinking.

Park, all involved say, didn't have much of a role in the first, woeful round of building the site. He was called in to help lead its turnaround; "when push came to shove," one House staffer familiar with the topic says, "he became an operator." And praise has been heaped upon him for that role, and the help he was able to rally from outside Washington as he did it. Part of Park's value, says the congressional aide, is that "the president could turn to him and say, 'You're going to an office park in Maryland and you're going to recruit some of the best and brightest to go in with you.'"

But the House staffer points out that the complete rebuilding of the health care site was accomplished with the very same contractors at the major IT vendors CGI Federal and QSSI as it world on it the first go 'round. That, says the staffer, points to a weakness in the executive branch's administrative capacity. "What good is it," says the Hill aide of U.S. CTO post, "if the president can't deploy it on his most important IT investment?"

One read of the job suggests that, in ideal times, the CTO post should be far more focused on developing public policy than rebooting botched IT projects. Jennifer Pahlka was a Deputy U.S. CTO until this spring. The CTO, she argues, should be a "reality check" for the president, especially when it comes to making sense of what he or she is hearing about the digital delivery of government services from the federal agencies. But the Chief Technologist's focus, says Pahlka, more properly belongs on helping to advance the White House's policy work on everything from open government to so-called Big Data.

Also renewed by Park's decision to head west is the question of what sort of person should fill the U.S. Chief Technology Officer slot.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder of the well-known tech publisher O'Reilly Media who has been working at the intersections of government and tech for the last several years. The CTO, he says, should be used as "a check on the wild spending on outdated technology that so often characterizes government IT." But given that the office "has a small budget and can easily be ignored by agencies with their own fiefdoms and enormous bureaucracies," the job requires, he says, "someone with enormous credibility, deep knowledge, and the ability to influence others without being able to command them." (Someone like Todd Park, adds O'Reilly.)

Obama's announcement in 2007 that, if elected, he'd create the U.S. CTO post, sparked a great deal of excitement on the west coast in particular that he might bring into government service a high-profile technology industry figure -- an Eric Schmidt or a Vint Cerf from Google, perhaps, or a Steve Ballmer, then CEO of Microsoft. But there was as sense around the job at the time that it was so new of a thing in the federal realm, so unestablished, that it called for someone familiar enough with the ways of Washington in order for it to having a fighting chance of getting traction.

That need to truly get Washington hasn't gone away; the U.S. CTO, says the House aide, needs to know in his or her bones how budgeting cycles affects how the Department of Defense buys and builds IT. But the post has gotten enough attention in the ensuing seven years, both because of projects like the overhaul and a growing sense that the technology and government worlds can't exist in isolation, that necessity of having a national CTO is no longer, arguably, that hard of a sell.

But if Chopra, to be simple about it, focused on how technology can change government and Park spent his time on how government needs to change its approach to tech, the next CTO may well find his or her time consumed with changing something a bit softer -- how technologists inside and outside of the federal government do their work.

That seems to be the trend, at least. There's a growing shift away from the idea, implicit in Obama's pledge to create the U.S. CTO post back in 2007, that one person could alone do much of the work of fixing how the United States government thinks about IT. Call it the "great man" or "great woman" theory of civic innovation, perhaps, and it's on the way out. The new U.S. Digital Service, the pod of technologists called 18F housed at the General Services Administration, the White House's Presidential Innovation Fellows, even Park's new outreach role in Silicon Valley -- all are premised on the idea that the U.S. needs to recruit, identify, organize, and deploy simply more smart people who get technology. Says the House staffer, "They're recognizing that you can't just have this sort of ad hoc, improvisational response every time, that they need to have a more institutionalized framework."

"There's a general recognition that the human capital component is the most important part of real improvements," says the Hill aide, "and, unfortunately, it's also the most difficult part of all this."

So, it seems, the hunt for the next, third Chief Technology Officer of the United States is on. The job description? Likely one along the lines of what Tim O'Reilly describes: "It takes visionary leadership but also incredible persistence in working the levers of the bureaucracy, the ability to create goodwill among colleagues whose existing way of doing things might be threatened by change, a broad network outside of Washington D.C., and the ability to inspire people who wouldn't otherwise consider government service to come to Washington." Stay tuned.

*The full text of Obama's call for the creation of the U.S. CTO post in his "Technology and Innovation" campaign fact sheet, issued during the 2008 presidential campaign:

Bring Government into the 21st Century: Barack Obama will use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Obama believes in the American people and in their intelligence, expertise, and ability and willingness to give and to give back to make government work better.

• Obama will appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.
• The CTO will have a specific focus on transparency, by ensuring that each arm of the federal government makes its records open and accessible as the E-Government Act requires. The CTO will also focus on using new technologies to solicit and receive information back from citizens to improve the functioning of democratic government.
• The CTO will also ensure technological interoperability of key government functions. For example, the Chief Technology Officer will oversee the development of a national, interoperable wireless network for local, state and federal first responders as the 9/11 commission recommended. This will ensure that fire officials, police officers and EMTs from different jurisdictions have the ability to communicate with each other during a crisis and we do not have a repeat of the failure to deliver critical public services that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.