The Plain View
One of the US government’s best innovations so far this century was establishing a chief technology officer. Since Barack Obama created the post, you would expect that his former VP Joe Biden would want to choose his own CTO early into his presidency. Doing so would provide Americans with a strong voice and a knowledgeable leader in a period when tech’s issues—in AI, education, jobs, privacy, and disinformation—are more critical than ever.
But nope. Nearly a year and half into the Biden administration, we have no CTO. The office is empty.
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In recent months, the administration has tried to catch up on some key White House tech roles after what seemed like a deep slumber. We now have Mina Hsiang, who was part of the healthcare.gov rescue team, leading the United States Digital Service, which is kind of the Navy Seals of software development. And late last year the administration appointed two deputy CTOs: Alexander Macgillivray (aka AMac), the principal deputy, is former counsel and free-speecher for Google and Twitter and served as a deputy CTO in the Obama years; Denice Ross, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow who later worked on census issues for nonprofits, was named the chief data scientist. Both are great choices—but they are deputies to an empty chair.
That’s a shame, because the short history of the federal CTO shows that the position is more than justified. In 2009, inaugural CTO Aneesh Chopra figured out the duties of the role. His successor, Todd Park, was a relentless talent recruiter who organized the USDS and helped save healthcare.gov. Megan Smith, who took the helm in 2014, was an MIT grad and ace engineer who went on to fill big roles at Planet Out, the legendary startup General Magic, and then Google. At OSTP, she made it a point to urge more women to pursue STEM careers. So in addition to making our government more tech-savvy, a great CTO can inspire. Even Trump, wary of all tech over 260 characters, eventually appointed a CTO, Michael Kratsios, a Peter Thiel acolyte who focused on policy advisory and AI.
Now there’s no point person for any of those issues, despite the fact that this administration has another good reason for installing a strong CTO as soon as possible. So far Biden’s splashiest tech-related appointments have been people like Lina Khan at the FTC, Jonathan Kanter in the Justice Department, and Tim Wu as a special assistant. They’re all inspired selections, but they are antitrust crusaders who kind of hate Big Tech, which for all its monopolistic misbehavior is a vital part of our economy and lifestyle. A CTO with deep technical knowledge and a familiarity with the Silicon Valley ecosystem might be able to balance the conversation so that the baby doesn’t go out
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