CXOs crowd the landscape

Too many chiefs at the workplace force CIOs to dodge IT turf wars

A decade after the creation of the chief information officer position in the federal government, a new group of "chiefs" is crowding the CIO's spot on agencies' organizational charts, former and current CIOs say.

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 and the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 granted CIOs and CFOs, respectively, certain duties, but agencies have drawn their own lines and boxes on organizational charts, generating confusion and plenty of friction.

Legally, the CIO has a clear role, but in practice, information technology leadership roles are fragmented and uneven, said Drew Ladner, former CIO at the Treasury Department and now general manager of JBoss Government, an open-source middleware company.

"Right now, organizations are saturated with 'chiefs,'" he said. "Because there typically aren't really strong managers at senior levels, what happens is that the CXOs tend to get involved in political infighting and turf battles."

Ladner said the government should push for stronger CIOs and CFOs because they are the two most important positions in an agency. The people in those roles should have greater access and accountability to senior agency officials than other officers do.

Examples of effective chains of command already exist in industry. "We should look to the private sector to embrace the best practices of financial institutions and companies running large and successful IT organizations as well as global supply chains," Ladner said. "Even though government has different requirements, we can learn much from CIO and CFO positions that have been around in the private sector far longer and have had more time to mature."

In the federal government, a few commendable agencies have refined their leadership structures to streamline IT management. "A number of agencies at the Defense Department strike a healthy balance between setting strategic direction and policy at the top and letting warfighting programs make decisions in the field that are in the best interest of warfighters and national security," he added.

By law, the CIO oversees information resources management, including information dissemination, statistical policy, records management, privacy, IT and information security compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Today, the officials who helped write the Clinger-Cohen Act say they intended CIOs to work as partners with CFOs, but the profusion of high-level managers has diluted that vision.

"To some extent we got carried away with all these chief types and it can cause a degree of confusion," said Renato DiPentima, a former Social Security Administration CIO who was consulted during the congressional debate on Clinger-Cohen.

DiPentima is now president and chief executive officer of SRA International, where the CIO and CFO often interact with him. The CFO reports directly to DiPentima, and the CIO has direct access to him.

The CIO reports to the chief operating officer, but "there is nothing stopping the CIO from coming to see me anytime she wishes," DiPentima said. He takes issue with agencies applying the word "chief" to other positions because it diminishes the implicit power of the word.

NASA did just that, adding other chiefs alongside the CIO and CFO. Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe created a chief education officer position, a chief of staff and a chief of strategic communications. All three were at the same level as the CIO and CFO, reporting directly to the deputy administrator.

However, NASA's headquarters transformation is not complete. The new administrator, Michael Griffin, has established a chief operating officer position. Previously, the deputy administrator and the COO were the same person. NASA is still in the process of dividing responsibilities between the deputy administrator position and the new COO role.

DiPentima said he thinks this kind of organizational chart impairs an agency's focus. "My concern is that the proper focus be on that CFO and CIO job," he said. "I think that the proliferation of Cs could definitely cause confusion and that if an agency attempted to implement all these Cs, that agency could have a very top-heavy organization."

However, the role of chief acquisition officer is an exception. DiPentima believes the CAO will eventually become as critical as the CIO and CFO. That sentiment is shared by some lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who has sponsored a bill that would require each agency to appoint a CAO.

Overall, DiPentima approves of the way IT managers have grown into the CIO position, coming to understand the role and garnering high visibility.

"In almost every agency today, you have the CIOs and CFOs working at the same levels," DiPentima said. "I have been very pleased with how I've seen the CIO position mature over the years. When it comes to both the CFO and the CIOs, I think both have matured very, very nicely."

The growing collaboration between CIOs and CFOs is also evident in the Agriculture Department, where the new CFO is the former president of a consulting firm specializing in high-technology, accounts-receivable collections.

"One of my best partners in the organization is the CIO's office," said Charles Christopherson, who started as the USDA's CFO in December. "We rely so heavily on the systems to accomplish our tasks."

His technology background enhances the relationship, Christopherson said. "The CIO is not trying to often educate me on the basics of IT," he added. "We can skip certain steps in our conversations. In the same respect, I have an incredible respect for the efficiencies of what systems can do."

A $100 billion organization cannot be managed on paper, he said.

"Our systems aren't necessarily the cutting-edge, newest systems. Some are archaic" and need technical support, Christopherson said. He tries to meet face-to-face with the CIO once a week.

No conflict exists between the two, he said, because job descriptions are clear. "It's just understood that there are two pieces," he said. Christopherson exercises budget constraints when the CIO wants to purchase too many new "toys."

Likewise, the CIO tells Christopherson when the agency can save money on software license purchases by consolidating e-mail systems, for example.

"A secretary doesn't sit down and say the two of you have to play well together," Christopherson said. "He expects that you will work together."

One former federal CIO said agencies that delegate IT responsibilities to several senior executives could struggle to manage them. Kim Nelson, who recently left her position as CIO at the Environmental Protection Agency for the private sector, said the EPA gave her position the proper breadth.

"Some CIOs have a much more narrow [field] of responsibility, which does not cover all the information management functions," Nelson said. "That could create some tension and turf battles. I believe EPA created the position just as it should have been created. It's the model for everybody else to follow."

Doing it their way

Some agencies have implemented CXO structures that are a bit hard to decipher. At the Office of Personnel Management, Ronald Flom wears two hats as associate director of management services and chief acquisition officer. In the first job, he oversees much of the information technology realm, including information services, contracting, facilities and administrative services, security and emergency actions, workforce management and equal employment opportunity. As CAO, he is responsible for procurement. He reports to OPM's top official in both capacities.

However, Flom is not the chief information officer. That title belongs to Janet Barnes, who is also deputy associate director of the Center for Information Services. As CIO, Barnes has direct access to the agency's top official. As deputy associate director, she reports to Flom in his management services capacity.

Officials say the hierarchy, which can be confusing to some, does not dictate influence. "The key issue is not the location of the boxes, but the access to the agency head when it is needed," said Clarence Crawford, OPM's chief financial officer. "It comes down to the mission, the agency, the size."

For example, Barnes is chairwoman of the Investment Review Board. That board makes recommendations to OPM's top official about IT investments.

Some lawmakers say agency structures do not need to adhere to any standards other than ensuring that the CFO reports directly to the secretary.

"All agencies are not the same, and they shouldn't be forced to fit a preconceived mold that may or may not work," said Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Government Efficiency and Financial Management Subcommittee. "The statutory framework imposed by Congress -- the CFO Act, Clinger-Cohen Act and others -- is just that: a framework."

-- Aliya Sternstein

The 2014 Federal 100

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