CIOs should have fixed terms, some management experts say

Appointing agency chief information officers to serve a designated length of time could reduce turnover and promote greater continuity, according to a former deputy CIO. Paul Brubaker, now chief executive officer of Procentrix, has been trying to build interest in the idea for about two years.

The idea isn’t unprecedented. The Government Accountability Office believes that a similar tenure approach for chief management officers could make agency transformation efforts more likely to succeed.

Agency CIOs serve an average of 23 months, said David Powner, director of information technology management issues at GAO, citing a 2004 GAO study. A deeper look at the GAO numbers shows that politically appointed CIOs average only 19 months in office, but CIOs who are career employees stay at their post an average of 32 months. However, to lead changes effectively, the CIO needs to stay at least three years, and five is better, Powner said.

“The key is getting through a number of budget cycles because budget cycles work so far ahead,” Powner said.

Brubaker was a staff member in the 1990s for then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), co-author of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which created the CIO position. In testimony in 2004 before the House Government Reform Committee’s Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee, Brubaker said CIOs should be political appointees obligated to serve a fixed term between six and 12 years.

Now he envisions a system in which CIOs — whether politically appointed or career employees — would come into the agency with a mutual understanding that they would serve for a specific length of time. At the end of that term, the agency and the CIO would decide whether to continue the arrangement.

Precisely how the program would work is an open question. Brubaker said it would be almost like an employment contract but probably not as binding.

“You can’t have indentured servitude, so there would [have to] be some flexibility for both parties,” Brubaker said. But the flexibility should include some expectation that the CIO would stay for a set period of time.

Brubaker said he would like to see a few agencies test the idea. “The downside is that if it didn’t work out, you might get stuck” in an undesirable situation, he said. “But there are certainly safeguards you could put into place,” he added.

The arrangement would work to the benefit of the CIO and the agency, Brubaker said. The CIO would be able to count on the agency’s support for the specified period. But the CIO would have to deliver good results to stay in the position.

“If they haven’t made enough progress, you can revisit whether you want to reappoint them, and you have to take some proactive action to reappoint,” he said. “There’s performance pressure that plays into that. It’s going to motivate people to do a good job. Right now, if you get into one of those slots, if you play it right, you can be there a pretty long time.”

Chris Mihm, managing director of strategic issues at GAO, said the new chief management officer idea attempts to solve the problems that Brubaker has identified.

“These large-scale change management efforts take three to five years or five to seven years, depending on which book you read,” Mihm said. “The idea is that these chief management officer positions would be the good-government management transformation [leaders], not the policy positions that we have political appointees for.”

Mihm didn’t rule out using formal contracts. “You could put someone on a five- to seven-year contract, with nice performance goals,” he said. “If they meet them, they get some nice bonuses, and if they don’t meet them, the euphemism I’ve heard is they ‘achieve excellence elsewhere.’” However, an arrangement could also be a handshake deal, he added.

Brubaker said the defined term could extend to other executives, such as chief financial officers and chief acquisition officers. Agencies could stagger the terms so that only one of those positions is likely to change hands at a time.

Charles Havekost, CIO at the Department of Health and Human Services, said Brubaker’s idea could be beneficial, but it has some shortcomings.

“It wouldn’t prevent people from leaving,” Havekost said. “What it would do is minimize some of the turnover associated with changes in leadership in organizations. There may be some value in that, but the flip side is if someone comes in to lead an organization and they have a trusted IT [leader], it seems reasonable that they should be able to bring in that person as CIO. There would be a risk of making the CIO by definition an outsider from the executive leadership of the organization.”

Good or bad, Havekost said, the idea is likely to be hard to sell to policy-makers. “Think about the value proposition,” he said. “Are agency heads likely to like it? It seems like it might take away some of their selection authority. So what is the value, why would an agency go down that path?”

The idea is good in theory, said Jim Flyzik, president of the Flyzik Group. However, “in reality, the way the current work environment works and how dynamic environments are, there will be some issues,” said Flyzik, a former Treasury Department CIO. “You can’t hold somebody to a certain job if they choose to move on. I think people would be reluctant to take a job if they felt they were locked into it.”

Bob Guerra, a partner at Guerra Kiviat, said the idea would enhance stability within an agency’s IT organization.

“If your CIO is going to be a strategic thinker, you definitely want him committed to the job for a specific term,” Guerra said. That applies, he added, even if the CIO’s tenure bridges a presidential election. “The reason for the existence of an agency shouldn’t change just because the administration changes,” he said.

CIO candidates need to think about the position not as a short-term steppingstone to something better but as a commitment to make significant improvements in an agency’s business operations, Guerra said.

“I think we should set the expectation that if you take a CIO position, you’re going to stay there five years,” he said. “There is an expectation that as honorable businesspeople we commit to each other.”

Federal CIOs have diverse backgrounds, don’t stay longThe median time that federal chief information officers hold their positions is about two years, according to a 2004 Government Accountability Office report. GAO surveyed the CIOs of 27 agencies and departments and found that 24 of them had previously worked in government, 16 had been in private industry, eight had served in state or local government, and two had been in higher education. Most of them — 17 CIOs — had worked in two or more of those sectors.

CIOs and former agency information technology executives that GAO interviewed said a CIO must stay in place three to five years to be effective. However, in surveying all the CIOs who have served in federal agencies since the 1996 passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act, GAO found the median tenure to be 23 months. Only about 35 percent of them stayed in office more than three years.

Some of the reasons that GAO found for the high turnover rate included the perception of others in the agency that the CIO is an adversary, the high stress and long hours typical of the position, and the higher pay that many CIOs can earn in the private sector.

— Michael Hardy

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