Left in the dark
- By Nancy Ferris
- Jun 14, 2004
Although federal agencies are required by law to have their chief information officers report to their agency head, it is common for CIOs to report to assistant secretaries and others below the top echelon, a Federal Computer Week survey shows.
In 24 of the federal government's largest agencies, only 11 CIOs report to an agency's top official; the other 13 report to undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and other officials.
The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 requires CIOs to report to the agency head in all 24 of those agencies. But Bush administration and Office of Management and Budget officials have not enforced that provision of the law, and Congress seemingly has not sought to pressure the executive branch to comply, sources said.
The reason for the provision is well-known. Congress wanted to ensure that information technology moved out of the back rooms and into the business decision-making processes of agencies. Some of the famous government program failures occurred because decision-makers knew little about IT and did not consult those who did, IT experts said.
But does it make sense to mandate an identical organizational chart for every agency? For many observers, the answer is no.
"Each federal agency has a unique set of business lines and responsibilities, and thus each agency is organized accordingly to meet their goals and achieve results," said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT.
Meanwhile, OMB's Circular A-130 reiterates the Clinger-Cohen requirement that the CIO report to an agency's top official, Evans said. "We continue to work with agencies as they consult OMB in selecting their CIO, to ensure that both the agency and [the] CIO is able to fulfill their given responsibilities," she added.
The private sector does not provide a clear example of CIO reporting structures. Industry CIOs report to different executives in different companies.
"It depends on the company and the nature of their business," said former Treasury Department CIO Drew Ladner, who has returned to the private sector.
"In companies where IT is a much bigger part of a company's business and their strategic competitive advantage, the CIO will report to the [chief executive officer]," he said. "In some cases, where it's really critical, the CIO will actually sit on the board, but that's quite unusual. In other cases where the CIO's primary responsibility is to keep the desktop [computers] running and that kind of thing, the CIO may report to the [chief financial officer] or the chief administrative officer."
"There is a range [of reporting relationships], but generally speaking, the CIO reports to the chief operating officer," he said.
When Ladner started his job at Treasury in early 2003, the department's CIO reported to the assistant secretary for management. After Samuel Bodman became deputy secretary of Treasury in early 2004, Ladner said, Bodman announced that the CIO would report directly to him because of the importance of IT.
Ladner said the new reporting line eased his work with other Treasury officials. They seemed to recognize the departmentwide benefits of elevating the importance of IT.
"If the CIO is one more layer down," Ladner said, "then when people listen to the CIO saying, 'Hey, we are going to do X,' the calculation can be made that, 'Oh well, the CIO has to sell X two layers up instead of one layer up.' So it's a very different environment."
A seat at the table
Many knowledgeable observers say the question is not so much to whom CIOs should report but whether they have a seat at the management table.
"Just the fact that they're not reporting to the secretary in and of itself wouldn't be, in my opinion, a big issue, as long as the person has access to the secretary or the undersecretary," said Renato DiPentima, a former Social Security Administration CIO and a leader in the federal technology community, who was consulted during consideration of the Clinger-Cohen Act.
"We envisioned that these people would be elevated to the same level as the CFO, who is often an assistant secretary for management and budget," said DiPentima, president and chief operating officer of SRA International Inc., based in Fairfax, Va. "In some agencies, they made the CFO the CIO. In most agencies, they put the CIO under an assistant secretary, and if that is still getting the CIO's perspective at the highest levels, then the fact that he or she is not reporting directly to the secretary is not a showstopper."
DiPentima said some CIOs work closely with the secretary and deputy secretary, and "there are some who may rarely see their secretary." In the latter case, he said, it's likely that decisions are being made "without the full evaluation of how IT could help the agency's mission" and with an incomplete understanding of return on investments in technology. Federal CIOs are supposed to direct IT utilization "to provide better service — and hopefully at a lower cost," DiPentima said. "That takes some discussion and dialogue, and people could be missing out on that."
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, an industry organization, agreed that "there are some departments where the CIO is not given adequate visibility." In those cases, he said, the CIO may only be considered the top technician or the director of financial and human resources systems.
That's a problem, Miller said, because "IT is absolutely critical to the ability of these agencies to function." When the CIO has too little clout, agencies do not maximize the potential of their IT investments. In fact, Miller suggests that it is no accident that some of the agencies with notorious IT problems are the same agencies that give their CIOs short shrift. He declined to name specific agencies.
DiPentima and Miller said agencies should have the CIO report directly to an agency's top official, and Ladner said "the CIO probably should be reporting to more senior-level decision-makers than historically has been the case in the federal IT community."
Ladner was a political appointee selected to lead some important initiatives, such as enterprise software licensing and implementation of an IT portfolio-management scheme. With his departure, Treasury is expected to return to its previous practice of having a career federal employee as CIO.
Out of the loop?
DiPentima said the framers of Clinger-Cohen envisioned "that not only would these people be reporting to the secretary, but basically that they would be political types confirmed by Congress."
"To us, that sort of went hand in hand," he said. "If that's not happening, you sort of bring the job down a bit. I'm saying that as a former careerist. More and more of these positions, I've noticed, are becoming career positions. In my mind, it's an indicator" of potentially diminished stature.
Political appointees seem to find it easier to enter the inner circles of agency management. But, as DiPentima noted, career employees can be nominated for jobs open to political appointees.
In April, Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, named Charles Havekost the department's CIO and deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Information Resources Management. Havekost is a 25-year federal employee, although he left in 1999 to join a telecommunications company and returned two years later. Thompson said the new CIO would lead e-government projects and oversee the department's IT resources, program systems and infrastructure.
But when President Bush called for an accelerated effort to automate the nation's medical records, he directed HHS officials to establish a new office to coordinate the nation's health IT projects. In May, Thompson appointed Dr. David Brailer as the national health IT coordinator.
Brailer reports directly to Thompson, an HHS spokesman said. Havekost reports to HHS' assistant secretary for budget, technology and finance.
In addition to disregarding the reporting provisions of Clinger-Cohen, agencies ignore other provisions relevant to the CIO. For example, according to Clinger-Cohen, IT should be the only responsibility of the CIO.
But at the Department of Housing and Urban and Development, Vickers Meadows is CIO and assistant secretary for administration. HUD spokesman Michael Fluharty explained that the administration had consolidated the CIO and chief procurement officer duties under the assistant secretary for administration/CIO. He added that the "centralization of administrative services is important for a better coordinated service delivery."
No one interviewed for this article agreed to comment about the arrangements of any specific department, although many CIOs privately voiced concerns that their positions do not report directly to agency heads. But Miller said that departments in which CIOs also hold other senior positions should try harder to comply with the law. Anyone who tries to do two major jobs "is really selling one or the other short," he said.
In October 2000, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), former chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, issued a report about agencies' compliance — or their lack of compliance — with Clinger-Cohen. The report reviewed the status of CIOs and showed that agencies were sometimes unclear about to whom the CIO reports, as they remain today.
For example, Interior Department officials told the committee staff that the "CIO has a direct reporting line to the secretary; reports to assistant secretary-policy, management and budget for operational activities." Similar language appears on the department's official organization chart today.
The Thompson report did not focus on the CIO reporting line as a major problem. Instead, it focused on program management, investment reviews and performance measurement. It did recommend, however, that "departments and agencies should articulate the roles, reporting relationships and boundaries of authority among all CIOs within an agency," and also that "departments and agencies must provide the appropriate authority to the CIO to ensure the CIO's control over IT capital planning and investment processes."
Thompson's successor on the Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), has joined with her House counterpart, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), and the House Government Reform Committee's subcommittee on technology to ask General Accounting Office officials to review Clinger-Cohen compliance with respect to CIO status. A report is expected later this year.
The last time GAO officials reported on the status of CIOs, they advised top leaders of agencies to stress the importance of IT and insist on including the CIO in decision-making.
"The CIO and supporting organization must have active support and commitment at the very top of the enterprise or they will remain limited and tangential to the business, despite their potential contribution to mission accomplishment," said the 2001 guide "Maximizing the Success of Chief Information Officers: Learning From Leading Organizations."
Meanwhile, the House committee has approved a bill that would make Clinger-Cohen directly applicable to the Homeland Security Department. The measure would also force DHS officials to adhere to the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990.
But some officials are questioning whether such legislation will make a difference if neither the Bush administration nor Congress insists that agencies comply.
The situation "at least raises the question: Do we still have the same emphasis on this [CIO] position that we were meant to have when we did Clinger-Cohen?" DiPentima asked. "There are some agencies where I think the answer would be yes, this person plays a very prominent role and is an important part of what we are doing. And there are other agencies where they seem to have been pushed to the back."
Ferris is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.