Three months into Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009, he was lauded for appointing the nation’s first chief technology officer (Indian Anesh Chopra), a position his campaign promised to create to ensure the US government had “the right infrastructure , policies and services for the 21st century.”
The achievement was one of the reasons technology news outlet Engadget called Obama “the most tech-savvy president” in 2017, crediting the creation of the position with “the Silicon Valley mindset of the federal government” and helping to “modernize the executive branch.”
But more than 20 months into Joe Biden’s presidency, he has yet to name a nominee for US CTO, leaving vacant a key post that helps guide the administration’s tech policy.
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Last December, US Principal Deputy Chief Technology Officer Alexander McGillivray announced that the administration was seeking candidates for the top spot. But the White House has yet to provide significant information about the search.
The result, according to tech industry leaders and former federal officials, is that the administration is left without a single person to lead key AI and data initiatives and lacks a unified voice to articulate the benefits of technology in government.
“Honestly, it’s very disappointing. … It shouldn’t have taken this long,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Foundation for Information Technology and Innovation, a D.C.-based think tank that receives funding from tech companies including Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Atkinson, who served on a political committee for Biden’s presidential campaign, said advisers presented Biden’s team with multiple candidates for the role. He argued the failure to select from a wide pool of talent as a lack of urgency.
“It is not difficult to find a technical director. It really isn’t,” he said. “The challenge is that they just haven’t made it a priority. They could have easily done this a year and a half ago if they wanted to.
Historically, the US CTO has helped spearhead initiatives to foster technology innovation in the private sector, leverage data and other tools for government use across agencies, and expand technical expertise across the federal ranks, in addition to advising on policy issues.
Although Biden has yet to select an appointee for the top role, he has chosen McGillivray to serve as his top deputy in addition to two other deputies, Dennis Ross and Lynn Parker. Ross also serves as the US Chief Data Scientist. Parker, a Trump appointee, left her post this year.
Biden also elevated the role of director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which houses the US CTO position, to cabinet-level status for the first time. But the post had been vacant for months after former OSTP director Eric Lander resigned amid a harassment scandal and was officially reinstated recently.
“Under the leadership of Dr. Arathi Prabhakar, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is successfully carrying out President Biden’s mission, developing innovative new policies designed to benefit the health and well-being of all Americans,” said White House spokeswoman Olivia Dalton said in a statement.
Dalton added, “OSTP is fortunate to have a strong Chief Deputy CTO as we complete the staffing process for a permanent officer.”
Former President Donald Trump took even longer to take office, but Biden could still beat him and set a record delay.
In March 2019, more than two years into his presidency, Trump selected Michael Kratsios as US Chief Technology Officer, elevating him from his role as deputy. Kratsios, who had served as chief of staff at Trump supporter Peter Thiel’s investment firm, was confirmed in August of that year.
Less than a year later, in July 2020, Kratsios was tapped to also serve as acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, an unusual dual role that saw him remain the U.S. chief technical officer, as at the same time taking on additional duties for the Ministry of Defence.
The result is that the US CTO position has been vacant for most of the time since Obama left office, and for some of that time the CTO has split his duties elsewhere.
Three officials held the title of US CTO under Obama: Aneesh Chopra, who was technology secretary under Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine; Todd Park, who served as chief technical officer of the Department of Health and Human Services; and Megan Smith, a former Google executive.
“I think it was an incredibly important and symbolically important role in the Obama administration, which meant he wanted to use technology in a positive way and also have nuanced discussions,” said Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress. a left-of-center trade organization group that receives funding from major technology companies.
Once seen as a role that created connective tissue between the Bay and the Beltway, Atkinson said the CTO vacancy under Biden is another indication of the thawing relationship between Silicon Valley leaders and some officials in Washington.
“With the ‘techlash,’ especially among progressives who see technology more as a problem than a solution … I think the administration is saying, ‘Why push this?'” he said.