Exodus depletes USDA CIO's office

Problem with 'acting' officials

When most senior executives in an organization are in an acting capacity, day-to-day operations continue but organizational effectiveness suffers, some management experts say. One of the biggest contributing factors in organizational performance is effective leadership, said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, an organization that supports efforts to improve government performance. If there is a weak link in management, either because of acting positions or vacancies, organizations may not be as effective, Palguta said.

“What is lacking is the long-term strategic direction of the organization,” Palguta said. “It’s hard to look beyond the year ahead. For those in an acting capacity or if they are fairly new to the organization, it’s difficult to do the long-term planning or [develop] policy.”

— Mary Mosquera

Recent departures of senior career executives from the Agriculture Department’s chief information officer’s office have left observers inside and outside government wondering why employees are in a rush to leave. A senior USDA official said it is a simply a case of experienced executives seeking new opportunities, but others say personality conflicts and leadership style are causing the exodus.

USDA is losing decades of experience from well-respected employees, including Bob Suda, Chris Niedermayer and Jerry Williams, at a time when such employees are most valuable. At the same time, a natural brain drain is expected from a change in administration and retirement losses.

Chuck Christopherson Jr., the department’s CIO and chief financial officer, explains the situation as the result of dynamic changes at USDA. Under Christopherson, who became CIO in July, The department is pushing initiatives to standardize information technology and business processes from headquarters down to agencies. Some IT initiatives, such as e-grant-making and secure identity verification cards, are mature enough to be deployed in USDA agencies.

But Christopherson is also seeking agency participation in generating new ideas and contributing to development.

Agencies are where the workforce is and where they need the initiatives that USDA headquarters is spearheading, Christopherson said.

Agencies also can treat those initiatives as natural extensions of mission-critical programs. For example, the Natural Resources Conservation Services, one of USDA’s largest grant-making organizations, is working with the Cooperative State Research and Education Service and Foreign Agricultural Service to develop grants processes.

“Suddenly, it’s dynamically needed versus [being] just a consolidated project,” Christopherson said. “Now we can have 19 different projects happening at the same time versus just one or two.”

Some USDA employees familiar with the situation in the CIO’s office but who did not wish to be identified said Christopherson has created a difficult work environment.

“He doesn’t talk to us,” one employee said. “He dictates. He won’t collaborate or work with others.”

By the end of February, only one longtime executive will be left in the CIO’s office.

Other CIO executives will be in an acting capacity, which could affect USDA’s efforts to improve cybersecurity, IT business cases and other important work, sources say.

“It is an unusual set of circumstances,” said an industry observer who requested anonymity. The career executives leaving are well-known in the federal IT community.“ It was an environment, I heard, where the personality and forcefulness were at odds, and they had options to go elsewhere,” the observer said. Even with senior managers working in an acting capacity, performance could suffer, observers said.

Williams, deputy CIO, and Niedermayer, associate CIO for information and technology management, announced last month they were leaving.

Williams will go to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as director of financial improvement. Niedermayer starts work Feb. 11 at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where he will develop IT governance processes for the agency’s IT investments.

Suda, who until recently was associate CIO for integration and operations, is acting director of the Transportation Department’s Volpe Center. Kathleen Rundle, associate CIO for operations, retired in January.

Christopherson sent an internal memo to prepare people for the organizational changes. It said the organization was stagnant and that some higher-grade-level employees in the CFO and CIO offices had received advanced training for leadership positions. “USDA is prepared with employees who are qualified for interim ma agement and to compete for the vacant positions,” he wrote.

Projects are moving forward, Christopherson said in an interview. By March or April, 30,000 laptops with encryption software installed will accept secure personal identity verification cards that conform to the standards of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, he said. 

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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