The Biden administration hasn’t had a CTO. Why?
Mar 13, 2024

The Biden administration hasn’t had a CTO. Why?

The role of a federal Chief Technology Officer has previously helped inform the White House about tech policy and the use of tech for economic growth. But the position has been vacant for three years.

When President Barack Obama took office way back in 2009, he created a new role that promised to bring some tech know-how to his administration. Chief Technology Officer, or CTO, was, of course, a title borrowed from corporate America.

Early on, the job focused on things like bringing broadband access to rural parts of the country and modernizing the way the federal government keeps records. President Donald Trump also had a CTO. Well, we are now deep into President Joe Biden’s current term in office and the president has yet to appoint a CTO for the United States.

For more on why, Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Cristiano Lima-Strong, tech policy reporter at The Washington Post, who’s been tracking developments on the position. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Cristiano Lima-Strong: It was first created as a part of the federal government to help government agencies harness the power of technology for the benefit of Americans, so helping to inform policy, but also figuring out how technological considerations could be embedded in questions about what the government should be doing to promote jobs, to promote welfare, and carry out basic functions.

Lily Jamali: And President Obama, we should note, got a lot of good press for doing so. It made him look very tech savvy. How did the role help with government innovation back then?

Lima-Strong: So when it was first launched, it was a very different time for the government’s relationship with the tech sector, we should note. This is a time when a lot of the focus was on fostering innovation and harnessing these tools. And so initially, a lot of it was, how do we open up government data to the private sector to help inform some of the decision-making around jobs and some of these other issues happening in the economy? And it was also about thinking about technology’s role in government and in public policymaking itself.

Jamali: Sure. And did it also help encourage innovation in places like Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, or mini hubs, around the country?

Lima-Strong: Yeah, of course. And it’s always had a sort of symbiotic relationship with Silicon Valley, where the chief technology officer would be looking to both bolster innovation in the tech sector, but also was looking to recruit some of that talent to figure out how the government could harness those tools and apply some of that expertise to its own work.

Jamali: How would you describe the current relationship between the administration and Silicon Valley and the rest of the tech industry right now?

Lima-Strong: I mean, Obama was the President that ran the first social media campaign. He had quite at times, critics would say, cozy relationships with tech executives. And after the 2016 election, that dynamic really began to shift to the point now where President Biden has appointed some enforcers that are very critical of the tech industry. And so that’s something that’s also looming over the dynamics here, that there’s an active tension in Washington within different parts of the administration about how much the federal government should be embracing the technological innovation taking place in Silicon Valley, and how much it should be spending its time trying to make sure that it’s also not perpetuating societal harms that we’ve increasingly heard officials expressed concern about.

Jamali: All right, well, three years now into the presidency of Joe Biden, why hasn’t President Biden appointed a CTO?

Lima-Strong: The White House has not officially commented on why the position is empty. They have said that they are hiring, the job has been posted for years at this point. But some of what they have said is pointing to the fact that they have elevated some other roles within the administration to take on some of the tasks that might traditionally fall to a chief technology officer. That includes President Biden elevating the role of director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the cabinet and level. And so that’s a position that’s played a more prominent role in some of these discussions than perhaps would have in the past when there was a CTO in place.

Jamali: Yes, and what about someone like Lina Kahn, who now heads up the Federal Trade Commission? She came in with pretty robust antitrust credentials and, without a doubt, has made her mark, like her or not, on big tech and tech policy.

Lima-Strong: So the Federal Trade Commission is an independent enforcement agency. And so it certainly has a huge role to play in carrying out the administration’s approach to competition, as you alluded to, and some of these other issues. But the chief technology officer position is really something that would kind of, to an extent, straddle above a lot of the government agencies at the executive level and help try to direct the thinking at a macro level in terms of technology’s use, and what checks government officials should be thinking about placing on these tools.

Jamali: So given all that, does it matter that the federal government has no CTO right now?

Lima-Strong: It depends on how well you think the government is doing in terms of its approach to technology as is. There are a number of folks that I’ve spoken to that feel that there are plenty of qualified candidates out there and that if the administration was really determined that it could fill this role. And certainly, it should be noted, that in the past the chief technology officer role has been very pivotal in helping to develop some administration policies on issues like artificial intelligence, which the Biden administration has now taken on. During the Trump administration and in the Obama administration, the chief technology officers played a key role in crafting AI strategies. And so that is a position that could be having a very active role word in place now, but of course, as the White House has noted, other positions, including that OSTP director role at the White House have been in some ways taking on those functions.

Jamali: So you mentioned AI, there’s also so much scrutiny being placed right now on social media companies. Is there a sense of almost frustration among certain people that there is no individual serving in this role?

Lima-Strong: I think, honestly, a lot of the frustration comes from the private sector. In some ways, the CTO was in the past a liaison to Silicon Valley and an ambassador to Silicon Valley, both in terms of recruiting talent, but also fielding their expertise about how technology could be used to benefit the American people. And so I have heard frustration from some think tanks and groups that are closely allied with the tech industry that have expressed frustration that this position remains vacant.

Jamali: We are now months away from Election Day. Is this role probably just going to stay vacant until the end of President Biden’s current term?

Lima-Strong: I think it’d be extremely difficult for the administration to fill this, because this is a Senate confirmed role. It’s always possible that it could get caught up in politics on the Hill. And so given the fact that there is not a nomination, it would likely be difficult to get this position filled by the end of the year.

More on this

Here’s a piece from a full decade ago from reporter Robinson Meyer. Back then, he wrote for The Atlantic about Obama’s persona as the “Internet candidate” in 2008, looking at how central technology was in general to Obama’s election and his presidency. From social media helping to fuel uprisings in the Middle East during his early years in office, to that broken website that plagued the launch of Obamacare. And although the CTO job was revolutionary for its time, Meyer reminds us, it was never entirely clear what the CTO was supposed to do, exactly.

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