Editorial: Making IT matter

Times have certainly changed for chief information officers. The CIO position was created by the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, in the wake of ongoing reports that information technology dollars were being misspent. Lawmakers believed it would help if a single person oversaw IT at each agency.

When the dot-com bubble burst, it was clear that times had changed for IT. Nicholas Carr's recent book "Does IT Matter?: Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage" — and the uncomfortable feelings the book has elicited in the IT community — is a case in point.

Yet another example comes from the June 14 cover story in Federal Computer Week, in which we reported that many CIOs are cut out of the decision-making process. FCW found that CIOs at only 11 of the 24 largest agencies report directly to the head of the agency, despite the legal requirement under Clinger-Cohen. The other 13 CIOs report to undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and other officials. And that means agencies are violating the law's intentions.

So what? Unfortunately, the outsider status of most agency IT executives is probably closely related to ongoing problems with many technology systems. And there have been long-standing problems with agency CIOs being all but ignored by departments within agencies.

Therefore, even within agencies that have the proper reporting structure, it is often true only on an organizational chart. In many cases, the CIO does not wield the power necessary to meet the position's needs, even if the authority is there on paper.

If CIOs don't have any real power, they cannot do what they are being asked to do. For CIOs to be as effective as they can be, they need access to money, information and people.

CIOs should be an essential part of any agency's management team, and by most accounts, the Bush administration has taken some steps to ensure that IT executives are included in the budget process.

When they are given the opportunity, CIOs must prove their value.

We understand why IT matters. The CIO's job is to ensure that the rest of the management team does as well. And Congress needs to make sure that Clinger-Cohen is followed to the letter.

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