COMMENTARY

CIOs: The more things change…

OMB's 25-point plan still falls short

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group.

Give the Office of Management and Budget credit for attempting to add some punch to the role of agency CIOs. It’s a pity OMB didn’t try to push it even further.

OMB’s 40-page, 25-point plan to reform federal IT management has been well reported and hashed over. It’s a good document — sweeping, comprehensive, focused. It is organized around the five basic themes of the IT management reform strategy that Jeffrey Zients, OMB’s deputy director of management and chief performance officer, outlined in November.

The themes are:

  1. Aligning the budget and acquisition process with the technology cycle.
  2. Strengthening program management.
  3. Streamlining governance and increasing accountability.
  4. Increasing engagement with the IT industry.
  5. Adopting light technologies and shared solutions.

At several points, the new roles and responsibilities for agency CIOs are noted or suggested. They include:

  • Identifying and migrating three services to cloud solutions and retiring the associated existing systems.
  • Leading TechStat accountability sessions within their departments.
  • Launching a best-practices collaboration Web portal through the CIO Council.
  • Working with their chief financial officers to identify programs for which added budget flexibility could save money and improve outcomes.
  • Shifting their role and responsibilities from policy-making to portfolio management.

Although those are good first moves toward strengthening CIOs, more dramatic steps are necessary if we’re going to restore life to this position across government.

The law that created federal agency CIO positions is the IT Management Reform Act of 1996, often referred to as the Clinger-Cohen Act. It is a well-crafted piece of legislation that, along with the accompanying report language, outlines an important and wide-ranging role for the CIO. But problems developed soon after enactment, when Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.) retired and Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) left Congress to become secretary of Defense.

With no one in Congress to monitor the law’s implementation or review candidates for department leadership positions, those tasks fell to the Executive Office of the President and thus to OMB, which demonstrated that it’s better at reviewing and overseeing than it is at doing.

Each department had to submit to OMB its plan for implementing the law. Look around government today and you will find CIOs in a crazy-quilt of differing duties, reporting relationships and so on. We have CIOs who lead small policy shops and report not to the secretary or deputy secretary, as required by law, but to a CFO or assistant secretary of administration. We have CIOs who don’t have the proverbial seat at the leadership table, who play no significant role in IT budget decisions, who have no authority to terminate or redirect existing investments, and on and on. That is what was proposed and approved then, and that is what we are stuck with now.

In government, one has a short period of time to get a new office right — to get it launched with the appropriate authorities, responsibilities and stature. After that window closes, the organization calcifies, and it can’t be fixed without breaking it up again and starting over. It’s time to break the CIO shop in government, start over and do it right this time. But is there support for doing so?

At the recent GCN Awards dinner, I sat near four department CIOs and watched their reactions when Roger Baker, the Veterans Affairs Department's CIO, accepted the award for Civilian Agency Executive of the Year. Baker said others could look to VA's innovative approach to the CIO role as a model of what works and what is needed. He got a small smattering of applause that night. Not a single one of those CIOs joined in the clapping.

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Reader comments

Wed, Dec 22, 2010 jane was dc

To add to the challenges facing CIOs, many have taken on the role of agency chief privacy officer (CPO) or senior agency official for privacy. OMB encouraged this designation in 2008 in response to 2005 legislation mandating certain agencies to appoint at CPO. Reacting to calls from Rep Tom Davis who wrongly feared that CPOs represented an increase in bureaucracy, OMB put the new responsibility squarely on the shoulders of CIOs, in light of their information resource management role and responsibilities. The CIOs, in turn, give this tremendous responsibility to one person in their shop without any adequate resources and ignore the issue. This was the wrong policy move. As indicated by Alan's commentary, there is not one mention of privacy or security for that matter. CIOs have other priorities and demands that take away from giving their personal attention to privacy. I've yet to meet a CIO that actually wants or likes privacy - most were tagged it b/c OMB said it was OK to do. OMB reserved the decision allow agencies to use persistent cookies in the spirit of open government. The time has come for OMB to recognize that CIOs are not privacy experts, nor want to be. They have other fish to fry, as indicated in Alan's commentary, and often look at privacy as an impediment. These responsibilities should be removed and given to a knowledgeable person who strongly believes in the protection of citizen privacy rights - not about building IT systems and networks and building huge datamarts. Manage agencies, large and small, already have done this, but OMB needs to make this a government wide policy. OMB also should create a Federal Chief Privacy Officer to coordinate agency efforts and remove this role from the Federal CIO council. It's high time to put citizens privacy first instead of relegating these precious constitutional rights to the bowels of the CIO shop.

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