Nov 172008

For the IT community, the incoming US administration could be a very interesting one.

President-elect Barack Obama is going to be the US’s first tech-savvy president who understands the power of the Internet. It is obviously overstated, but some political observers, such as Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, claimed that, “Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president. Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the nominee.”

During the campaign, President-elect Obama made several wide-ranging promises in regard to technology. For instance, he promised to protect the openness of the Internet by strongly supporting the principle of Net neutrality; he promised to deploy a modern communications infrastructure to get broadband to every community in America, and he promised to employ technology and innovation to solve our nation’s most pressing problems, such as encouraging the development of new clean energy sources and improving public safety.

While this is a very bold agenda — and one that I personally like and support — it is also one that may hold the Obama administration hostage to fortune.

For example, the Bush administration in 2004 viewed the creation of a national electronic health record (EHR) system as a primary means not only to reduce spiraling healthcare costs but also to “save” Medicare. This EHR system was supposed to be in place by 2014. While there has been some progress along this front, it is clear that the 2014 is no longer a realistic date and the current goal for 2014 is for all Americans to have some personal electronic healthcare record provided by a company such as Microsoft or Google. Creating a national EHR system is a lot harder — and more expensive — than it looked back in 2004.

Obama has said he too supports electronic healthcare records for all Americans, and he believes IT is a way …  to control the spiraling cost of healthcare in the US. It will be interesting to see whether the Obama administration puts its money where its campaign promises are, as a severe lack of funding (and political follow-through) helped doom the outgoing administration’s effort. Given the fiscal crisis the US is in, I don’t see there being a lot of extra funding available to make the dream of a national EHR system come true anytime soon.

The national EHR system was not the only policy dependent on IT that has had a very rough go. There have been problems at the FBI (e.g., the virtual case file system), DHS (e.g., the Secure Border Initiative, Real ID, and Cargo Tracking and Screening programs), and Commerce (e.g., the Census Bureau handheld project) — to name just a few where administration policy was circumvented by poor IT development and/or policy was based on a misunderstanding of what IT could actually deliver.

For example, the Real ID Act of 2005, which was a response to 9/11 hijackers’ easily getting driver licenses for identification purposes, defined a national standard for driver’s licenses and other forms of ID to enter federally controlled facilities. Originally, the date for compliance was May 2008, and the government estimated the cost of the program for all 50 states to be under $100 million in overall IT costs.

However, a more accurate cost for IT alone was more in line with $11 billion-$14 billion, and no state thought it could fully meet the 2008 deadline. A major political uproar ensued, with the result being that Real ID won’t be fully implemented until 2017 — assuming that this date isn’t changed by the new administration.

IT-driven policy has not worked well in the outgoing administration, mainly because of technological overreach. One hopes the new administration will avoid this problem.

Obama has said that he will appoint the nation’s first chief technology officer (CTO) to ensure that government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies, and services for the 21st century. The CTO’s job will be to ensure the safety of US networks and to lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and CIOs of each of the federal agencies to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

Hopefully, the CTO will also keep dubious IT projects from getting approved. Probably the most important aspect of his or her job will be to try to keep politicians from proposing legislation that requires IT solutions that are beyond the capability of anyone to deliver.

I once proposed that every major piece of legislation being considered require an IT impact statement — modeled after the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental impact statement. The statement would provide full and fair discussion of significant effects on IT, informing decision-makers, and the public about alternatives that could avoid or minimize adverse technical, financial, or social consequences. It would help Congress recognize realistic IT goals and expectations, rather than ones based on political wishes, no matter how well intended.

Maybe the CTO will warm to the idea.

Business, too, is viewing the IT thirst of the new administration with some anticipation. Just last week, IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano proposed a technology-fueled economic recovery plan that calls for public and private investment in smart transportation, smart utility grids, smart food distribution, smart water conservation, and smart healthcare. Without doubt, these ideas will appeal to Obama’s sensibilities.

The next few years will be interesting for the IT community. There is promise of a new IT revolution in government in the air. Given the reality of the fiscal situation, which will put constraints not only on the new administration’s IT promises but also on all the others — and there is a boatload full — we will soon see whether it is mere wishful thinking or the start of something grand.


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