CNET’s Editor in Chief, Dan Farber, has written an interesting column this past weekend on the potential turf battles that will be created by President-Elect Obama’s campaign promise to create a federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Farber says, “it could be difficult to find a worthy candidate from the private sector willing to take on a task of such enormous scope in an environment known to chew up and spit out White House policy czars.”

The authority which the CTO will be given will be critical to the success of whoever is chosen. I agree with Farber’s assessment: The White House CTO would need to focus on a few key tech initiatives and not just serve as an administrator or liaison between CTOs across the government. If the position is simply one of being a “coordinator” among individual agency CTOs, the new administration will not be able to attract a person with the right level of leadership skill and business acumen to get anything of substance done.

The role technology will play in helping America recover from its current financial woes will determine whether we can meet the demands of a 21st Century economy. And there are fewer better places to start that with the Science and Technology Directorate at DHS. Technology investments that make our communities safer, more secure and that provide jobs for our “knowledge workers” will put us on a better track than we are currently.

We must be willing, however, to tolerate the risk that some technology decisions, like that with basic research, may fail to achieve its intended result. But as every scientist knows, failure of result is not the same as a failure in learning valuable information.  Homeland Security must tolerate a healthy dose of experimentation. Unfortunately when there is a possibility of a political turf war, it takes a strong leader to convince public officials that experimentation is a strength and not a weakness.

So, as President-Elect Obama’s advisors help shape the role a new federal CTO will fill, and vet the individuals that will meet their qualifications, let us hope that they look for a person who is strong enough to be willing to experiment, to try new approaches and who is not satisfied with solving bureaucratic process issues and coordinating briefing slides.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More