President Obama flexes his tech muscle

Declan McCullough

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: This is Marketplace, from American Public Media. I'm Kai Ryssdal. High-speed internet providers got a boost yesterday from the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lawmakers set aside $6 billion to expand broadband access. That nod to the tech industry comes as President Obama and his Blackberry get used to the Oval Office. Obama's likely to be the first emailing president and the first to use a lap top. He's also committed to posting a weekly video address on YouTube. All of that should probably have been expected, given how tech-friendly the Obama campaign was. He's promised a tech-friendly presidency too. In part by hiring the government's first chief technology officer. Declan McCullough covers technology in Washington for CNET. Good you have you with us.

Declan McCullough: My pleasure.

Ryssdal: Maybe what we ought to do is start with talking about what this job might be, since it's the first time we'll ever have one. What's your thought on that?

McCullough: We don't know yet. We're kind of in a wait and see approach, that is the people that are following this question. One possibility is that this is someone doing technology policy for the administration, saying hey this is what privacy rules should be, this is where we're going to stand on things like broadband regulation and net neutrality. Another possibility, and probably a more likely one, is that the CTO will instead be the federal government's IT czar. This is someone who will try to get the federal computers moved into the late 20th century. And that by itself is--

Ryssdal: Say that again. The late 20th century, right?

McCullough: The late 20th century. And that, by itself is a huge, huge problem. I, we ran a story about a year or two ago about how the Department of Homeland Security was still using index cards to keep track of immigration requests and visa status changes. I mean, this is very old, old technology.

Ryssdal: Is that possibly a reason we need one? Because it is, it is so tough to get the government up to current standards in technology?

McCullough: I think that's a very good argument for one. Some decisions benefit from centralization, and this could be one of them. Sort of an overall strategy, and especially an overall strategy when it comes to putting more government information online. This is something that candidate Obama promised during the campaign, and to his credit, this is something that President Obama did. One of the first official acts he took was to direct all federal agencies to be more open and put more stuff on the Internet. And also charged the CTO with making this happen within 120 days.

Ryssdal: Well, who might it be then? There is a list of candidates out there rumored, to be sure.

McCullough: There is a list of candidates. There's a released list of rumors, as you said. The question is, will the president choose someone who is maybe more Silicon Valley focused? Someone like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has, in fact, said he doesn't want the job. So it's, so maybe it's unfair to speculate about him, but someone who understands how to run a large technology company and then can take those lessons learned to the federal government? Or someone like, well, Washington D.C. -- the city's own CTO has been talked about as a potential appointee. Someone how understands the way a government bureaucracy works and has done a good jobs and then can translate that to the federal government at large.

Ryssdal: You know, it's going to be pretty easy to know whether the stimulus plan has worked, because the economy will get better. It will be easy to figure out foreign policy because some of the hot spots might clear up. How are we going to know whether this technology officer has done a good job?

McCullough: It's a good question and something to ask the CTO once we know who he or she is going to be--

Ryssdal: Well, we'll get him or her on the phone and straighten that right up.

McCullough: Well, seriously. But there are a few things you can look at. I mean, if the portfolio includes cyber security, how many successful computer intrusions are there? If the portfolio includes how transparent agencies are, then you can look at how quickly agencies update their web site and post important news on there. I mean, it's going to be difficult to measure, I think, but not impossible.

Ryssdal: Declan McCullough, chief political correspondent of CNET News. Declan, thanks a lot.

McCullough: My pleasure.

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