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White House Names Google's Megan Smith as U.S. CTO

It's the most visible tech role in government, but one that faces steep challenges.

Joi Ito

Google executive Megan Smith will become America’s next chief technology officer, a direct assistant to President Barack Obama responsible for steering the federal government’s use of technology, the White House announced Thursday.

In addition, Twitter’s former general counsel Alexander Macgillivray was named deputy CTO. Macgillivray is a Google alum as well.

“Megan has spent her career leading talented teams and taking cutting-edge technology and innovation initiatives from concept to design to deployment,” President Obama said in a statement. “I am confident that in her new role as America’s Chief Technology Officer, she will put her long record of leadership and exceptional skills to work on behalf of the American people. I am grateful for her commitment to serve, and I look forward to working with her and with our new Deputy U.S. CTO, Alexander Macgillivray, in the weeks and months ahead.”

The dual appointment of two one-time Googlers may ruffle feathers at other tech companies, including Microsoft. However, both are well-regarded and respected within the sector and likely to be seen as able ambassadors for the sector’s interests in the nation’s capital.

These represent two of the most visible technology positions in government. But the jobs ultimately come with limited power to confront the many challenges in getting departments to effectively leverage the latest software and hardware, especially with time winding down in the Obama Administration.

Six years in, few of the founding goals of the then-new CTO position have been checked off, notably including ensuring federal agencies “use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.”

“The U.S. government for the most part, other than the Defense Department or NASA, is driving a 1980s Pontiac,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media. “It hasn’t been upgraded even to a 1992 Camry.”

An inherent challenge for the CTO is that the job doesn’t come with the same purse-string privileges that often accompany the title in private industry. The Obama Administration first created the position with the appointment of Aneesh Chopra in 2009, but tucked it within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“It primarily functions as an advisory and policy position,” said Rasiej, who was interviewed before Smith and Macgillivray’s names were made public. “It has very little power and no real budget.”

Smith has spent the last decade at Google, in recent years playing big and small roles in many of the Mountain View, Calif., company’s most ambitious or outlandish projects as a vice president in the Google X research division. Before joining Google, Smith was chief executive officer of PlanetOut, the then-popular online LGBT community. She sits on the board at MIT, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.

Smith is married to Re/code Co-Executive Editor Kara Swisher. For more details, please see this disclosure.

Macgillivray stepped down last summer from his role at Twitter, where he earned high marks for championing the free speech rights of the service’s users. Before that, he was considered a key member of Google’s legal team.

The pair may be in for something of a culture clash in the corridors of D.C., where the intricacies of tech often meet with smug dismissals or staggering ignorance.

And the track record matches the attitude, most recently and obviously with the breathtaking failure of the launch last year. In fact, among large IT projects from 2003 to 2012, only 6.4 percent were fully successful — 41.4 percent were “abandoned or started anew from scratch,” according to a Standish Group analysis published last year in Computerworld.

Observers say many such failures are preordained by layers of bureaucracy, byzantine procurement requirements and difficulties luring top talent.

The challenge before Smith and Macgillivray is not merely to help avoid taxpayer-funded boondoggles, but to help shift the culture, policies and practices to ensure that government is operating in the same information age driving this nation’s economy, observers say.

“You have a generation of kids who grew up with the iPhone, and their service and design expectations are different as a result,” said Clay Johnson, chief executive of the nonprofit Department of Better Technology, also interviewed before Smith and Macgillivray’s names were made public. “If these problems don’t get solved and government doesn’t become a tier one technology service provider with people, then the federal government is doomed.”

Macgillivray will replace Deputy CTO Nicole Wong, coincidentally also formerly of Twitter and Google, who recently stepped down from the deputy role. Smith will replace Todd Park, who is taking on a new role in the administration next month as a technology adviser in Silicon Valley.

He will be tasked with luring tech talent into government and finding ways to improve the government’s digital services.

Park is generally given solid grades for what he was able to accomplish within the restricted CTO role. Notably, he built the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which draws on expertise from private industry to encourage innovation within government, and helped put together the “trauma team” that helped fix the site after the disastrous launch.

While its development lay outside his purview, as the most visible technology executive within the administration he was subpoenaed to appear before a contentious House Oversight committee in the middle of that repair job. Park previously served as the Department of Health and Human Services CTO before moving to the White House.

“Todd Park’s job was to be the chief technology spokesman,” Johnson said. “So when you have things like pop up and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and the Republicans in Congress are looking for a head to chop off, it becomes very easy to point at the CTO.”

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