Eight years later, CIOs search for their place

Testimony from the House Government Reform subcommittee

In the eight years since the creation of the federal chief information officer position, CIOs' roles are still in a state of flux.

Experts told a House subcommittee last week that government officials must find ways to improve the effectiveness of CIOs.

Congressional investigators found that many factors affect the efficiency of CIOs, especially their length of tenure, which tends to be about two years. Many current CIOs and former information technology executives cite three to five years as the minimum time it takes for a CIO to become effective, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Others, such as Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator for e-government and IT, argued that CIOs' effectiveness depends on the individual in the job rather than how long they've held the position.

GAO officials found that federal and private-sector CIOs agree that, to be most effective, agency CIOs should have a seat at the table, meaning they should be included in the business structure and have equal stature among other agency department heads. But opinions are mixed about whether CIOs should report directly to agency secretaries. Although GAO officials found that CIOs generally report to agency heads, eight of the 19 with a direct reporting relationship also report to another senior agency executive on a day-to-day basis.

The GAO report suggests that Congress consider changing statutory requirements to boost CIOs' effectiveness. Making the position subject to Senate confirmation could give a CIO more clout, said Paul Brubaker, former Defense Department deputy CIO and now executive vice president of SI International Inc.

"It's a pecking order issue," said Brubaker who, as a staff member for then-Sen. Bill Cohen (R-Maine), helped write the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which mandated CIO posts at federal agencies.

One rationale is that if the posts were political, the CIO would be required to stay longer than the median two years.

Agencies' mixed success with IT projects, despite a $60 billion IT budget for fiscal 2005, has generated broad concern. Differing views on the reporting structure and questions about quick turnover in the past underscore the relative newness of the federal CIO position.

A lack of IT management and sufficient budgets for projects are the biggest challenges for federal CIOs, according to GAO's report. Additional challenges include managing an organization's natural resistance to change, and collaborating and communicating inside

and outside the organization, the report states.

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SEEKING A FIX

Government Accountability Office officials cite several reasons and remedies for a high turnover rate among federal chief information officers. The reasons include:

A challenging political environment.

Other agency officials' perception CIOs as adversaries.

High stress and long hours inherent to the position.

Political appointees stay about 13 months less than career civil servants.

Government salaries cannot compete with those of the private sector.

To increase continuity despite turnover, GAO recommended:

The use of results-oriented performance agreements to keep programs focus.

The creation of a deputy CIO.

Proper use of tools relating to workforce flexibilities, such as skill-based pay, recruiting bonuses and retention allowances.

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