U.S. getting tech czar but state still needs one
By Jay Fidell
By Jay Fidell
Barack Obama has announced he's going to appoint a tech czar to coordinate national technology. That's something he promised and something you would expect from him.
How will this unfold, and what can Hawai'i learn from it?
THE TECH PRESIDENT
It sure looks like Obama will be the tech president, the representative of the Internet generation. He was elected by the Internet, now he's going to do weekly fireside chat videos on YouTube. We're going to move into a national period in which people get excited again about technology, where people start thinking, with him, that we can solve lots of problems with tech that we couldn't solve without it.
Obama said he would appoint the nation's first chief technology officer who would help federal agencies use technology "to make government work better." He hasn't otherwise defined the job or its policy implications, so we're left to speculate about the authority it would have and who might fill it.
The word is that Obama will split the current Office of Science and Technology Policy into an office of science and an office of technology, and appoint the winning candidate as the Director of Technology Policy, keeping the job in the White House.
Would the czar update the government's IT systems and bring better Internet to more agencies? Would the czar address broadband access, net neutrality, cybersecurity and privacy? Would the czar be charged with rebuilding our national infotech infrastructure and making government records more accessible and secure? Or is it all these things?
Using the Internet to interact with citizens is a great goal, one that can lead to greater transparency and security, all at the same time. This has enormous prospect to improve the way our democracy works. There's no policy yet in place, but it's exciting just to think about it.
The czar could centralize our best technologies to run the federal government in the best way possible, to put government data online in universal format and give every citizen a Google-like interface to search the text of government documents. We've been missing this for years.
It's no longer Herbert Hoover's chicken in every pot — it's broadband access for every American, no matter whether you have money or where you live. Right now, we rank 14th in the world. In Asia, Korea is first. In Europe, France is half the price and four times faster. We need to catch up.
Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, said no to the job last week. The current front-runner is Julius Genachowski, a member of Obama's transition team and former FCC adviser. Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet and chief Internet evangelist at Google, and Shane Robison, chief technology officer at HP, have also been mentioned. Nobody's talking, but we should know soon.
If you think you're qualified, wait. Before you send in your application (see change.gov) or suggest someone (see obamaCTO.org), think about helping your state first. Hawai'i might need you just as much, or more.
THE LEGACY OF D&B
Ben Cayetano appointed Joe Blanco as Hawai'i's first tech czar under Act 178 enacted by the 1999 Legislature. See http://www.thinktechhawaii.com/act178.pdf . Act 178 was a truly inspired piece of legislation that led to Act 221, but the appointment itself had mixed results.
Even before her 2002 election, Linda Lingle said she wasn't interested in having a tech czar. In her now famous tech debate with Mazie Hirono at Dave and Busters on October 24, 2002, (www.thinktechhawaii.com/2002.aspx), she thought a tech "facilitator" would be better. In the six years since then, she has not appointed either a czar or a facilitator.
Although Maurice Kaya, former energy officer at the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, was sometimes referred to as the chief technology officer, he really wasn't. Lingle has let DBEDT Ted Liu act like he's the tech czar, but that hasn't worked out at all, and he has alienated the tech industry. The bottom line is that we haven't had tech leadership in this administration. The tech industry has learned to live without a czar, without access to the governor, and without any sign of a cohesive policy.
Although we've had some nice robot competitions, no state tech initiative has succeeded during this administration. The boneyard includes the Momentum Commission, the Workforce Council, the Kaka'ako biotech park, the China Initiative, the Innovation Initiative and, most recently, the Hydrogen Fund. It's too early to tell whether the Clean Energy Initiative will follow suit.
In short, we've needed a czar and we've wasted precious opportunities by not having one.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Obama's appointment of a national tech czar can be helpful to our next governor. By then, it will be long overdue. Let's make this a serious campaign issue for the 2010 election and vote for the tech candidate, the one that will create a special adviser position for a czar, as Act 178 did. That kind of position is best because it goes across all departments and all agencies, and for the idea to work, the czar must be able to do that. Embedding the czar in DBEDT is futile.
The job calls for a leader and builder, not a bureaucrat. It calls for someone with motivation and energy to tackle big problems, sell big solutions and not be daunted by resistance. It calls for someone from industry — infotech, biotech or energy. It calls for someone who knows entrepreneurship, venture capital and Act 221.
Like so many other things, it's about relationships. The czar should be able to build productive relationships with industry, government and education, all to the point where everyone you know becomes immersed in the promise of tech. If we do that, after a while some of this is bound to rub off on our kids and their teachers and parents too.
The czar could deliver fast cheap broadband to everyone everywhere in our state. The czar could entice tech companies to come to our shores, and at the same time do everything possible to grow our indigenous tech companies. The czar could nurture tech projects for the community, including projects for delivery of government services, life sciences, energy and transportation.
Above all, the czar could explore and develop critical creative tech policy and expedite the move to diversify our economy with tech.
There's so much talent out there. And the notion of filling this job two years from now makes you look differently at the tech people you know — they're all candidates. That's exciting for us, and for them.
Jay Fidell is a business lawyer practicing in Honolulu. He has followed tech and tech policy closely and is a founder of ThinkTech Hawaii. Check out his blog at www.HonoluluAdvertiser.com/Blogs