CIOs find crowded agenda wearing

If you are a government chief information officer today, you better have your sea legs.

Transformation. Security. Change management. E-government. These terms have become part of CIOs' vocabulary, but the rapid pace of change and a seemingly endless list of critical priorities are making the job of leading an agency's information technology shop exhausting, at best.

"We're trying to drive an awful lot of transformation through the agencies, and these become some of the most stressful jobs...I'm not quite sure yet how you keep people from burning out," said Mark Forman, administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of E-Government and IT.

One example is information security, Forman said while testifying last week before the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee. CIOs must file a steady stream of reports to OMB on their agencies' progress on securing vital systems.

But that's just one of many issues that have sprung from the President's Management Agenda, homeland security mandates and other initiatives. The workload shows no signs of abating.

One of the latest reports required by OMB might actually help the situation. In September, as part of fiscal 2005 budget requests, agencies must include skills assessments that outline how well they are staffed for the work they are doing. The office, among other concerns, will be assessing how much work is falling on CIOs.

Potential burnout will become more of an issue as the pace of cultural change, driven by e-government, increases, Forman said.

Others agree.

There is "a ton of stress" in the CIO position, said Roger Baker, former CIO at the Commerce Department and now an executive vice president at CACI International Inc.

"They're expected to have a strategic vision, but delve right down into the technical answers...and the program to rationalize government IT is not popular with the program and mission folks in an agency," Baker said.

The President's Management Agenda is generating much of the work. As part of this initiative, the Bush administration wants to take advantage of technology to change the way agencies work.

Unfortunately, CIOs are not always involved in the business procedures they are expected to help improve, said John Gauss, outgoing CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"In my opinion, CIOs aren't positioned properly within the organization," he said. "The power base within government is in the secretary, deputy secretary and undersecretary levels. Until the CIOs and [chief financial officers] are treated as undersecretary equivalents, they are not going to be able to be effective."

As frustrating as it can be, the key is getting agency officials to realize that "the opportunity presented by information technology can only be captured in changes of business processes," said Michael Carleton, CIO at the General Services Administration.

Some members of Congress are concerned that regular turnover in the CIO ranks could slow the momentum behind e-government and other initiatives.

One major challenge for CIOs is using the budget process to improve management. Drew Ladner, who stepped in as the Treasury Department's CIO in March, said at the hearing that one of his top priorities was not only to get involved in the department's capital planning process, but to establish a governance process that ensures that good policy and management are centrally handled for the entire agency.

Within the Army, the CIO is already responsible for the service's entire IT budget. But it will take a lot of additional work before the office will be able to centrally manage those dollars, according to David Borland, the Army's deputy CIO.

"Being responsible for it and being able to do it are two different things," he said. "The highly centralized management of the Army's IT budget is two years away."

The performance fund that the Bush administration proposed as part of the fiscal 2004 budget — which will reward federal employees at all levels for improved performance — should help with CIO retention because it offers financial incentives comparable to those of industry jobs, Forman said.

But money is usually not as much of a motivator for federal CIOs as is a sense of accomplishment or of making a significant change, Baker said.

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Burning at both ends

Federal chief information officers are responsible for meeting agency-specific goals and governmentwide mandates and guidelines. Some of their top responsibilities include:

* E-government — Coordinating or supporting the lead agency on the 24 e-government initiatives.

* Capital planning and investment control — Serving as part of an agency's investment review process to develop business cases that outline how information technology will enhance an agency's performance.

* Government Paperwork Elimination Act — Meeting the October deadline for making as many services as possible available to citizens electronically.

* Federal Information Security Management Act — Establishing good security management practices and reporting on the performance measures outlined by the Office of Management and Budget.

* Enterprise architecture — Developing and managing an agency-specific modernization blueprint and coordinating with the governmentwide federal enterprise architecture overseen by OMB.

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