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What type of CTO does D.C. need?

December 21, 2017
  • Michael Watson

D.C.’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Archana Vemulapalli, recently announced that she will step down in January 2018. In her 21 months of service to this city, Vemulapalli has led the development of a new data policy; hired D.C.’s first Chief Data Officer (CDO); and brought the city into the forefront of east coast technology culture through the Startup in Residence program, among other accomplishments.

For organizations like the D.C. Policy Center, a forward-thinking CTO is an invaluable partner in pursuing data-driven policy research.  Without a CTO pushing for open data, more of researchers’ time is spent trying to FOIA data and clean PDFs—if the data has been collected at all.  This leads to lower-quality research and, in turn, less effective policies.  D.C.’s policy and research community needs a CTO who can continue the push for open data, encourage investment in the D.C. data community, and serve an ally in the administration for using technology to provide better services for residents.

As the District government searches for Vemulapalli’s replacement, it’s a good time to consider what D.C. needs from its next CTO. This article will look at the evolution of the CTO position in D.C.’s government, what types of roles CTOs take on, and what challenges the District’s next CTO will need to tackle.


What does a CTO do?

The CTO position exists in both the public and private sectors, but it can be a somewhat difficult to define. Broadly, the CTO thinks about how technology fits into an organization and how to use technology to make the organization more efficient. This ranges from the implementation of necessary systems to planning for future technology requirements. Another way of saying all of this is that a CTO needs to “think strategically about the relationship between technology and their leadership needs.”

In the case of the government, this means thinking about the technology the government should be using internally as well as facilitating policy . One example of of the government allowing technology innovation to happen is the current pilot program of delivery robots in D.C.; in this case, the CTO is a valuable resource when evaluating technology that currently is unregulated but may affect residents. The government CTO, like his or her counterparts in the private sector, has to enable or drive innovation to provide a better product or service—but a government CTO must do this in a highly bureaucratic and regulated environment, steering an entity that often moves slowly, has many masters (requirements from the federal government, the judicial system, legislators, etc.), and path dependent on expensive legacy systems that are difficult to dismantle.

In addition, government CTOs often need to be more transparent , and likewise strive to make the administration they work in more open.  This can come in the form of making non-emergency (311) call information available to show how the city allocates its services, or making frequent FOIA request lists available to put pressure on the government to openly publish frequently used data.  Some private sector corporations do seek to be more open, but governments face constituents that are increasingly demanding open data and transparency in public sector operations.


D.C.’s CTO history

D.C. began to transform the way they think about communication and information starting in the early 1990s. The District established a Chief Information Officer (CIO) and an Office of Information Technology in late 1993, and established the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) in 1998.

The CTO role, in general, can be as direct as managing the internet systems and operations—much like what a traditional Chief Information Officer (CIO) would do—or as nebulous as being a “technologist” or “digital evangelist.”[1]  One commonly-cited framework defines four types of CTOs according to the structure of the organization and the duties of the position, and whether the CTO is focused on internal infrastructure or is more external-facing.  In recent years, the public sector CTO role has evolved from the day-to-day technology manager to the big-picture thinker who can implement sweeping changes. Government CTOs have also become more proactive as state and local governments have been forced to play a larger role in technological innovation because of decreased funding from the federal government.

It’s also worth noting that the CTO role, in recent years, is not one people stay in for a long time. This is true for a lot of cities, not just D.C. (While the D.C. government contains the functions of both a city and a state, CTOs from other major cities are the most appropriate model here because they take on more substantial roles than state-level CTOs, who often play a more traditional role focused on information technology or security.) One reason for this may be because technology is a very fast-moving sector; if a CTO is out of the private sector for too long, he or she might have a hard time returning back. The pay in the government is lower as well, which means that even a civically-minded CTO has a strong financial incentive to return to the private sector.


Below is a timeline of the District’s previous CTOs, starting with our first CTO, Suzanne Peck.

Name Years active Number of years active
Suzanne Peck 1998 – 2007 9
Vivek Kundra 2007 – 2009 2
Bryan Sivak 2009 – 2011 2
Robert Mancini 2011 – 2015 4
Tegene Baharu 2015 – 2016 1
Archana Vemulapalli 2016-2018 2


Finally, while D.C.’s first and most recent CTO were women, the rest of the officials in this role have been men. This pattern is repeated in other jurisdictions as well: Among the 20 U.S. cities with the largest budgets, only 25 percent of the Chief Information or Technology Officers are women.


D.C.’s upcoming challenges

D.C. will face a lot of technological challenges in the near term and future.  While not a comprehensive list, the following section outlines some of the major challenges.


One of the biggest operational challenges for all local governments is the city’s cyber-security. As an example, D.C police were the victims of ransomware, a method of hacking where a system is locked and demands a ransom in return for unlocking the infected system, around inauguration this past January.  Upgrading and maintaining the city’s cybersecurity system is a vital but never-ending task that any CTO will need to address; the risks in this area will only continue as more and more information is digitized. (The Office of the Inspector General’s recent audit identified many potential vulnerabilities in the D.C. government’s cybersecurity practices and included several recommendations.) Furthermore, this is an area in which governments can play a leadership role and demonstrate best practices for how to provide information about and implement smart and efficient cybersecurity across all sectors.


Automation is both an eternal and ever-present challenge for cities. One visible area is transportation: While it’s unlikely that D.C.’s streets will be filled with fully-automated cars in two years, testing has started in many areas, and the city needs to think about how to handle the challenges and opportunities of autonomous vehicles.  Furthermore, automation’s effects will extend well beyond self-driving cars, with far-reaching impacts on how residents live, work, and move around D.C. and the metro region—and preparing for those effects is the type of long-term planning we’ll need from the next CTO.

Technology sector

The CTO role obviously includes operations, upgrades, and general outreach, just like any other government office, but the CTO is also highly visible to current and future technology businesses in the city.  Having a strong CTO can help bring in talent to the local technology sector, or help keep businesses growing in place.  If we want to continue to grow D.C.’s technology sector, we need a CTO who can show to the outside world that this city (and its government) cares about technology.


The District government’s new data policy is here, and it looks very promising—but there is more work to be done. The next step is to fully implement D.C.’s new data policy, which involves actually getting District agencies to provide their data as described, providing data to end-users in a usable fashion, and showing the city’s vibrant data community examples of how and why to use this data.  While some of the weight of implementation falls on the new Chief Data Officer (CDO), in the end the CDO reports to the CTO—and the CTO needs to set the city’s technology and data related agenda.



The next CTO of D.C. will have a lot to manage, including both short-term and long-term projects.  They will have to be able to balance the government’s daily operational needs with the District’s desire to be a technological thought leader in the broader data and technology community. Therefore, the decision of who to recommend or confirm in this position should not be taken lightly. Questions decisionmakers will need to ask themselves include:

  • What are the most pressing challenges that technology can help address over the next three years, and what type of CTO is needed to do so?
  • Is the CTO there to make government operations run smoothly in the background, or push D.C. into the national spotlight for government technology?
  • Is it more important for the next CTO to continue and improve current initiatives, or start new and innovative programs?
  • Should the next CTO be someone with government experience who knows how to manage internal systems efficiently, or an outsider who can bring fresh eyes and private-sector insights to meet new technological challenges?
  • Is it important for the CTO to have a long tenure to see programs put into practice, or is a shorter tenure an acceptable price to pay for someone with closer connections to the private sector?

Given that D.C. has others in OCTO who are well positioned to handle more basic operational needs, I fall on the side of thinking that our next CTO needs to be a technological beacon—someone in the “visionary” mold with big plans for the District’s future.  This does not mean ignoring day-to-day issues such as cybersecurity and infrastructure, but viewing them as opportunities to be forward-thinking and use future technology to minimize operational difficulties. If D.C. wants to continue being a leader in technology start-ups and entrepreneurship, it must have a CTO who can both attract talent and interest to the city and work with policymakers to encourage technology growth.



[1] The District does have a CIO, but the position is located in the Office of The Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) and is focused on the internal infrastructure needs of that office.


Feature photo: Ted Eytan (Source)

Michael Watson is the Deputy Director of Data and Technology for the D.C. Policy Center.


Michael Watson

Former Director of Data and Technology
D.C. Policy Center

Michael Watson served on the D.C. Policy Center staff as the Director of Data and Technology from January 2017 until late 2019.

Before the D.C. Policy Center, Michael worked at RAND Corporation as a Technical Analyst.  During his time at RAND he worked on a wide range of projects including defining data science teams in the government, identifying new technology for law enforcement, and helping find slow points in government acquisition.  Before RAND Corporation he was an Adjunct Instructor at Towson University and Howard County Community College teaching introductory and elective science courses. 

Michael holds a Master’s of Science from Towson University in Applied Physics.  He conducted research on novel two-dimensional materials.  He has a Bachelor’s of Science from DePaul University in Physics where he conducted research on ultra-fast laser-matter interactions.He has additional education in project management, economics, and supply chain management.