An administration run by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., would likely create a national technology czar with broad authority to develop policy, elevating high-tech issues to the cabinet level in a major recalibration of the government's approach to regulating the communications sector.
The move would have substantial implications for the FCC, an independent agency that could be answerable to a new layer of bureaucracy or bolstered by it, depending on political circumstances.
The plan is being floated by the Democratic presidential nominee's top tech-minded advisers and supporters, including FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, widely viewed as a contender to run the agency if Obama is elected.
"There's a need for a single source at a White House level to coordinate technology policy across different agencies," Adelstein told CongressDaily late last month after a speech in Denver at the Democratic National Convention.
"They're extremely serious about it," he said of the Obama team, describing the proposal as a "fundamental tenet" of the Democratic nominee's tech agenda.
A chief technology officer would play a lead role in developing national broadband policy, drawing on the expertise of a wide range of departments, including Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, EPA, HHS, HUD and Treasury.
The appointee also might coordinate inter-agency efforts to establish tax certificates designed to boost minority ownership of media properties, oversee spectrum policy and help improve the government's reliance on information technology.
But the idea of a federal tech czar is proving highly controversial, with critics raising concerns about the level of authority he or she would have and increased prospects for turf battles and gridlock that could undermine the overarching goal.
They emphasized that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy already tackles some responsibilities the CTO would be tasked with.
At a communications forum in July, three of Adelstein's FCC colleagues expressed caution.
Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said he prefers to make the agency more independent rather than "politicizing" tech issues at the White House, although he is open to a more narrowly focused national broadband czar.
Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell suggested that each party's view of a CTO hinges on whether it controls the executive branch, while fellow GOP Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate also worried about harming the commission's independence.
Adelstein dismissed concerns that more bureaucracy and bickering would result. "I really think that there can be better coordination. The FCC alone can't deal with all of these issues," he said, adding that there is a need for a "central focus" on high-tech matters in the White House.
He insisted the proposal is not a byproduct of recent controversy about the commission's approach to regulation. "I think it's really a positive vision for how to improve and deal with some of the inadequacies of the last eight years," he said, referring to the Bush administration, which has been criticized by Democrats for ineffective regulations governing media and telecom companies.
Bill Kennard, who headed the FCC during the Clinton administration and is now a telecom and tech adviser to the Obama campaign, said no determination has been made about which government department, if any, a CTO would join. "We haven't gotten to that level of detail," he said. Kennard is now a managing director with the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.
Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, was cautiously supportive, noting during an interview in Denver that a CTO would send a "symbolic message" about Obama's commitment to making technology a bigger priority.
But he cautioned that the new title is not a "silver bullet" for fixing years of what he insists has been neglect. "Such a person can be an advocate and a centralized place to get information," he said.
There have been technology officers at various agencies and departments in the Bush and Clinton administrations but there has never been a government-wide CTO.
Last year, the White House closed its Technology Administration, a division of the Commerce Department, and eliminated the title of undersecretary of technology, a role widely viewed as weak and ineffectual.
The Democratic Party platform calls for creating a CTO "to ensure we use technology to enhance the functioning, transparency and expertise of government," while the GOP platform does not broach the matter.
"I don't think that making a new presidential appointment and adding a layer to the federal government" is the solution, said former CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a senior policy adviser to the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona during a recent interview with C-SPAN.
This article appears in the September 13, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.