No easy answer to career vs. political standing

Chief information officers across government are divided about whether it's better to have a political or a career person in the post. But they agree that longevity is the key to success.

A Federal Computer Week survey of CIOs in federal, state and local offices found that most are in career slots in which they are less likely to be influenced by politics. Those CIOs feel that they better understand an agency's culture and work within it more effectively than their politically appointed counterparts.

On the other hand, the informal survey, conducted online during the week of April 26, found that more than one-third of the 129 CIO respondents believe a political appointee can raise the profile of information technology within the government. Two-thirds said that politically appointed CIOs have better access to the top leader at an agency.

But two-thirds also concluded that a career CIO can have a bigger impact on policy and the development of IT systems because they remain in the job longer.

"If the position is set up correctly, a career employee is better," said Mel Bryson, assistant director of the Office of Information Technology at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which manages national court projects.

Bryson, who has been in his job since 1998, said he has directed some successful IT projects "because we have some continuity." However, he is frustrated that he cannot work more closely with other CIOs. Because the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is not part of the executive branch, Bryson is not a member of the federal CIO Council.

Some CIOs like the idea of having a politically appointed CIO and a career deputy at each agency. But those surveyed and interviewed strongly oppose such a proposal.

"The important issue is where in the food chain is the CIO," said Edward Meagher, deputy CIO for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The most important thing is access," he said. "And it so happens that the political CIOs have more of a handle on access."

That's not the only advantage, according to Don Upson, Virginia's former secretary of technology. "The career CIO has to spend too much time finding a champion" who can push policies and projects through the legislative branch, Upson said. "A political CIO can be more aggressive with Congress."

An added advantage is that political CIOs tend to come from the private sector, so they can introduce some fresh ideas to government, said Drew Ladner, formerly CIO at the Treasury Department. Ladner was a political appointee, but Treasury officials are making the job a career position.

"Political CIOs, if effective, are well-equipped to introduce and implement best practices from the private sector, where generally IT benefits from the latest in process and product innovation," Ladner said.

But career CIOs "are vital and offer assets that political CIOs do not have," he said. "Career CIOs, if effective, are well-positioned to understand how things are done in a large, process-oriented,

relationship-centric organization — ensuring that institutional memory and business continuity are preserved and enhanced as an IT organization enables the business objectives of that agency." Ladner is starting a technology-related company of his own.

But, CIOs say, longevity is most effective in generating change. More than half of the respondents have been in their jobs for more than three years. The longer they were in the job, the better they understood their agency's lines of business, specific IT challenges and what needed to be done to fix them.

That understanding is increasingly difficult to find at the state level, said Terry Savage, CIO for Nevada. "The average tenure of a state CIO has been about 18 to 24 months," he said. "I've been on the job almost four years, and I still feel like the 'new kid.'"

One problem is that short tenures do not foster the kind of long-term thinking needed with technology, said Joseph Hungate, CIO at the Treasury Inspector General's Office for Tax Administration.

"The only constant with [IT] is change," he said. "It's under continual flux; it still requires a reasonable planning horizon with respect to technology refreshments and aligning business processes with current and future technologies."

Although there are plenty of excellent political appointees, Hungate said, "those technologies do not fit so well within the political appointee horizon."

Whether career or political, though, survey respondents clearly believe CIOs must be part of the larger management teams at agencies. More than 70 percent of respondents favored the idea of having a CXO Council that gathers top-level executives such as the chief financial, privacy and knowledge officers to coordinate policy and swap ideas.

"I believe that a group of professionals can explore all issues, identify problems and develop realistic solutions more effectively than any one individual," said Gregg Tate, deputy CIO at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C.

About 80 percent of the CIOs who responded to the survey said they need a line-item budget for all IT spending under the control of the CIO. Without it, they said, long-term projects are more difficult to plan and even harder to finish.

"If you knew you were going to have a career person there for a long time, you'd build up trust and a track record and it might enhance the ability to get the line item in the budget," Meagher said. "What we have now is the guy responsible is long gone when something goes wrong."

Hungate agreed. "You just can't show up and do rapid change," he said. "It requires planning and integration that are consistent with the requirements of the Clinger-Cohen Act."

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