December 8, 2007  ·  Lessig

The Stanford Center for Internet and Society is now in the early planning stages for a conference to be held April 18/19 about the idea of a CTO for the United States government. Obama of course suggested the idea in his tech program. But this conference has nothing to do with the Obama campaign.

My current thinking is to pick four policy areas, and get experts to reflect upon how a CTO might impact or advance policy interests within each area. The four I now plan are (1) privacy, (2) security, (3) transparency, and (4) efficiency. Then at the end of the day, experts in administrative law will reflect upon how best to architect the office of the CTO to achieve these objectives.

No doubt there will be lots of fun speculation about who the US CTO should be. My own view is that the person should be someone at least with experience as a CTO at a major organization. (I.e., s/he needs to be a credible techie.) S/he should also have a rich sense of policy.

I’ve set up a page on my wiki to invite suggestions for the planning of the conference. And if you’d like to be informed when final plans are made, send a note to uscto@pobox.com.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I hate to be a party-pooper. I don’t like to rain on your parade. But …

    Read up on what happened to the Office of Technology Assessment:

    Bring Back the OTA – Bring Back Evidence Based Government

    ” Posted on: September 14, 2007 5:30 AM, by MarkH

    So I was thinking. It isn’t really enough to merely react constantly to anti-scientific behavior which seems to permeate the media, the interwebs, and policy discussions on Capitol Hill these days.

    It used to be, for about 20 years (from 1974 to 1995), there was an office on the Hill, named the Office of Technology Assessment, which worked for the legislative branch and provided non-partisan scientific reports relevant to policy discussions. It was a critical office, one that through thorough and complete analysis of the scientific literature gave politicians common facts from which to decide policy debates. In 1994, with the new Republican congress, the office was eliminated for the sake of budget cuts, but the cost in terms of damage to the quality of scientific debate on policy has been incalculable. Chris Mooney described it as Congress engaging in “a stunning act of self-lobotomy” in his book the Republican War on Science (RWOS at Amazon).”

    Serious suggestion, now that I think of it – reorient the conference to be about bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment. There’s many people who want to do that, and it’s a goal that has the advantage of something real to point to. Don’t have a conference where pundits imagine what it’d be like if they had a pony.

  • Evan Miller

    Prof. Lessig,

    The four policy areas you have chosen are a bit narrow-minded; pleasing, I think, to techno-libertarians who would merely like to see a “faster, better, cheaper” ship of state, but don’t forget that technology might enable government to effect positive good. If I may append to the list:

    (5) Provision of public, informational goods. Can the government make accessible, in some form, all the products of art and all the progress of science? Can it photograph every square mile in every national park? Can it digitize every artifact in every Smithsonian? Every book, magazine, and musical score that lives in the public domain? Can it rigorously test every mass-produced product for its efficacy? Finally, can it save consumers from the jungle of image, misinformation, disinformation, and Bernaysian propaganda that characterizes the modern American marketplace?

    (6) Positive liberty, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. Can the national government provide tools so that more citizens may meaningfully participate in local, state, and even national affairs? I do not mean to advocate a techno-boobocracy; rather, I mean to suggest two possibilities. First, technology might help policy designers and implementers connect with relevant experts (who need not abide in the DC suburbs); and second, technology might help ordinary, interested citizens coordinate toward common ends.

    Although this money-flooded Valley tends to look toward ad-supported corporations for these public goods and civic tools, only a transparent, market-immune organization–such as the U.S. government that you envision–can provide them impartially and perpetually.

  • Cory Ondrejka

    To echo Seth a bit, it seems to me that the CTO — or OTA — should be more focused on how to drive the four areas you listed for the US than driving them within the US government. Moreover, once you consider the role to be US focused, then I think innovation needs to be on the list. We’ve seen what one (mostly) open communications revolution can do, so a CTO who was really focused on increasing the rate of innovation would be extremely motivated to encourage the next IT revolution to be even more open.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/ Chris Hoofnagle

    Bush appointed a guy at OMB who basically was a CTO in a sense. His name was Mark Forman: http://www.gcn.com/online/vol1_no1/23042-1.html

  • http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/ MarkH

    This issue is actually a pretty complicated one, and my best recommendation is to read up on the history of congressional vs executive science advisory and the OTA by Bruce Bimber. I summarized much of his book before. Scientific advisory bodies can easily become partisan and political, and that was why the OTA was so exceptional. It actually became less partisan over time as opposed to technical and scientific advisory from the executive branch, or just completely inadequate as the OMB role. If you want to see what kind of reports they wrote, they’re all here at princeton. They had several reports dealing with privacy and technology.

    It’s worth reading about. When people start talking about bringing science to bear on governance, the OTA served that function beautifully until Newt’s new government axed the troublesome little voice of scientific conscience. Further, the OTA was never actually closed. It’s still there, waiting to be funded again. For about 30 million dollars it could be up and running in two years. They never actually killed the legislation setting it up. Just the cash.

    It’s particularly funny that you write “A US CTO” too. We had the original CTO, the OTA. Every other country copied our model. It was considered the smallest and most efficient congressional agency, and had broad bipartisan support. In an act that was penny-wise and pound-foolish (or outright anti-science you could argue either) it was killed. But the work has already been done for you guys. You just need to fund it again.

  • http://www.sunlightfoundation.com John Wonderlich

    @ Seth Finklestein: The OTA was recently reinstated, although in a different form, when Congress passed (and President Bush signed) the most recent legislative branch appropriations bill. I work for the Sunlight Foundation, and we helped push for this measure to be adopted. (see http://www.theopenhouseproject.com/2007/06/04/ota-endorsement/ or http://www.theopenhouseproject.com/2007/06/07/ota-renewed-gets-25-million/ )

    Instead of reinvoking funding for the still-authorized OTA department, the new approps bill adds funding to the GAO’s budget, letting them venture explicitly into the realm of technological assessment. This is probably a good thing, given GAO’s excellent reputation, and that their work is public, as are their evaluative criteria.

    Having a congressional support agency with an explicit mandate to provide research on technological issues will go a long way toward giving congressional decisions on technology the background they need to be sound, and re-funding an OTA, whether as a stand-alone agency or as part of the GAO is the right way to go about it.

    A separate issue entirely, however, is whether Congress has adequately organized their administrative appendages to address their own technological coordination issues. Having dedicated researchers available will help lead to better policy, but without clear jurisdiction, proper implementation and foresight get passed over, as agencies and departments struggle to prioritize and act within their budgets. Complex incentives surround the question of whether or not to take on a problem that is outside your department’s statutorily authorized responsibilities. A central non-political body coordinating these responsibilities across Congress would streamline the process of implementing and planning new technological transitions, a very complicated task for such a complex institution.

  • HH

    What America needs is a CCO, a chief commonsense officer. Most of the so-called technology problems in the American economy are caused by grossly stupid refusals to accept common sense solutions. For example, no two hospitals use the same electronic format for a patient chart. There is no shared standard for metadata on an electronic medical scan. There is no standard electronic identifier and database for US medical patients.

    Pick any industry and you will see abundant opportunities for extensive use of decade-old off-the-shelf technologies like XML and smart cards to achieve enormous productivity gains. The persistent relabeling of behavioral problems and management stupidity as technical challenges contributes to America’s refusal to call things what they are and to solve problems at their root.

    Establishing a national CTO to preside over a stupidly uncooperative society will do absolutely nothing to advance American productivity. The correct leadership strategy is to expose irrational backwardness and obstructionism wherever they exist and bring public pressure to bear to end it.

  • Joe Buck

    If the CTO is going to be some exec from a large corporation, we don’t need that; those guys have plenty of evidence as it is.

    We could use a strong OTA again. I knew people who worked for the original OTA, before it was gutted, and it was clear that the reason for the gutting is that those guys too often discredited projects that were dear to the hearts of powerful interests.

  • Jardinero1

    Why do we need a CTO? I think this is a cure looking for a disease.

    What information is a CTO going to have access to which the capital markets do not? How will one government decision maker pick winners and losers any more efficaciously than thousands of investors and decision makers in industry? What guidance will this CTO use to pick the winners and losers? Whose interests will this CTO serve? How will he stay above the fray of the “evil corporate lobbyists”? What tools will he have at his disposal? More loopholes to complicate the tax code. Regulatory breaks? Lucrative government contracts?

  • sumguy

    do we have to use the retarded silicon valley ‘CTO’ term? I’m rather sick of hearing from these people, as it is pretty clear they are a bunch of worthless money grubbing knuckleheads. Can’t we just conform to the ‘Federal /something/ Commission’ pattern? At least it will comfort the publics concerns that the government is trying to create another asset bubble.