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What Does The Chief Technology Officer Of A Country Do?

How the CTO is influencing the American government

27Jul

What Does The Chief Technology Officer Of A Country Do?

Technology is now arguably the driving force behind everything that happens in society. From finance to housing, it is making processes more efficient and cost effective, which, in what is supposedly an age of austerity, is enabling - or at least is said to be enabling - government policy. While cutting costs and simultaneously improving public services may sound like an oxymoron, technological advances could mean that it is a real possibility.

In light of the growing importance of technology in society, in 2009 Barack Obama created the position of ‘Chief Technology Officer’ (CTO) for the US, within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The official name for the role is Assistant to the President, Associate Director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the use of ’CTO’ purloined from the corporate world - implying that it is more than a simple presidential advisor.

The CTO is of even greater importance in the US because the role is currently filled by a woman, Megan Smith. In a male dominated field such as tech, the significance of this should not be underestimated. But what does the CTO of a country actually do?

Smith’s credentials are impressive. She is former head of new business development at Google, where she led a number of large acquisitions that would later go on to become Picasa, Google Earth and Google Maps. In her role as US CTO, she has a broad mandate. Officially, her central responsibility is to ensure the US ‘government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century.’ Basically, she has been tasked with bringing the federal government into the Google Age.

Her team advises the president on all significant issues affecting tech, including net neutrality, regulations, patent reform, and privacy issues. They also create a framework in which tech can flourish, cutting red tape so as to enable entrepreneurs to flourish, and bringing broadband to as much of American society as possible - an issue which could have dramatic implications for curing poverty.

She works across a variety of sectors and field, including energy, environment, national security, and innovation, space, technology, and robotics. Not only this, but they also focus on how technology can immediately fix emergency issues such as Ebola.

Within the functioning of the federal government itself, Smith is tasked with promoting and encouraging top talent to join the United States Digital Service (USDS). The USDS puts in place teams of tech executives to fix problems and optimize government websites to make them as useable as possible. For example, they had a team in place to fix HealthCare.gov, the bugs in which caused huge problems for Obama as he attempted to roll out his controversial Obamacare program.

There is also a mandate for the CTO to improve diversity in which is often a depressingly white male dominated field. Smith’s impact on diversity in particular should not be underestimated, stemming not only from her gender but also her previous role as CEO of gay and lesbian website PlanetOut. Not only has she proven to be a role model to women looking to move into tech, she started TechHire, a program which is looking to push more women and people of color into tech jobs.

Technology is in a constant state of flux, as innovations come thick and fast. The problems facing federal government are similarly always changing. Ensuring it is ready to utilize such innovations to deal with clear and present dangers is one of the more important jobs in government, and as Obama’s tenure draws to a close, the creation of the CTO role could one day be seen as one of the best decisions of his presidency.

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