Memo to the next federal CIO: Here's the job...

With the imminent departure of Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, people in the federal IT community are beginning to wonder: Now what?

Never mind the speculation about who will replace Kundra; that should be revealed soon enough. Instead, the larger question is: What kind of job will that person be taking on? Although the title might be the same, the context and expectations will be dramatically different.

Kundra stepped into the position just months after President Barack Obama swept into office promising change. Innovation was the order of the day. The new federal CIO, on the other hand, will join a team that is gearing up for a re-election campaign in a polarized political environment.

Kundra spearheaded the development of an ambitious IT agenda, with a focus on IT management reform, cloud computing and data center consolidation. The new CIO, working in the home stretch of the administration’s first term, will be expected to implement that agenda, which will depend on building relationships with agency officials and lawmakers in the face of political tensions. Bridge-building, not innovation, is the order of the day.

“This administration is focused on having a second term,” said Karen Evans, a partner at KE&T Partners and former administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget. “The president has set his IT agenda…and [the administration] has pretty clear goals that they want to achieve during 2012.”

Kundra's successor will be in charge of reaching those IT goals, she added.

Politics vs. policy

During the first six months of the IT management reform effort, Kundra and other senior officials set in motion many of the plan’s 25 action items.

Milestones so far include a shift to a cloud-first policy, the launch of the mythbusters education campaign, the creation of a formal IT program manager career track and the completion of plans to shut down 800 government data centers by 2015.

The two areas in which progress is lagging involve working with Congress — to create IT budget models that align with modular project development and to consolidate commodity IT spending under agency CIOs. Sources said those elements of the plan will likely take a second Obama administration to accomplish.

Indeed, the re-election campaign, which began this summer, is an important factor to consider when weighing the next CIO’s responsibilities.

Tim Young, a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting and former deputy administrator of e-government and IT at OMB, said that during the last 18 months of any political administration, the focus tends to be on politics rather than good policy.

“There will likely be a shift in focus of the administration to highlight accomplishments,” Young said. “That said, I don’t view planning for an election and a potential second administration and implementing this reform agenda as mutually exclusive.”

He added that there is an opportunity and a need to see the IT reform plan through to implementation as long as it is managed in a “nonpolitical and good-government manner.”

Young outlined three steps he believes the new CIO must take to successfully put the plan into operation.

First, he or she must let the public know how agencies are adopting the plan, for better or worse. Second, he or she must partner with Congress and the Government Accountability Office to ensure consistency and oversight in the budget process. And third, the next CIO must empower the CIO Council and career employees to improve performance.

A critical aspect in terms of how much the federal CIO accomplishes will be his or her ability to manage people. That’s why Trey Hodgkins, vice president for national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said he expects that a big part of the next CIO’s job will be changing the culture at federal agencies.

“Cultural inertia is frequently found in democracies and departments, and it can prohibit or limit the effectiveness of these [IT] changes,” Hodgkins said. “I think most everyone will say change of the type that [the reform effort] focuses on is the most difficult when its gets implemented at the people level.”

The next CIO will have to encourage people to adopt IT reform efforts by demonstrating how such changes can save time and money, Hodgkins added.

Ultimately, sources said they see Kundra — the third federal CIO after Mark Forman and Evans — as a visionary and a game-changer. The next federal CIO will not only have to sustain the Obama administration’s IT reform vision, he or she will have to make that effort real and enduring though strategic implementation.

Building relationships

The future of IT reform will also depend heavily on the next CIO’s ability to build relationships with agency CIOs, career federal employees and Congress.

Evans said she believes agency CIOs will be the federal CIO’s biggest advocates. “I would say that CIOs in the departments and agencies are the ones who have to understand where you’re going,” she said. “Agency CIOs are the ones who will carry the results for you.”

Similarly, Evans said it will be crucial for the federal CIO to develop strong relationships with OMB staff and lawmakers.

During her tenure as federal CIO, Evans said she viewed Congress as a partner and would explain to lawmakers how IT improvements were beneficial to their constituents — a point that is particularly relevant in light of the administration’s goal of aligning the budget cycle with the pace of IT.

“If Congress doesn’t understand what you’re doing, you’re not necessarily going to get it done,” she said.

Paul Brubaker, CEO of Synteractive and a former congressional staffer who helped draft the Clinger-Cohen Act in the 1990s, said the Obama administration should allow for more give-and-take between the executive and legislative branches.

“I think the [relationship with Congress] needs to be incredibly close,” Brubaker said. “As a former staffer, we would have embraced more dialogue, particularly with OMB…and almost less-structured dialogue.”

Brubaker added that open lines of communication between the two branches enable learning on both sides that can result in better policy.

Former officials said they don’t expect the next CIO to introduce many new initiatives in the near future, but he or she will have the chance to shape a relatively new role in the federal government.

Evans said she believes the next CIO will bring a unique approach to the job, just as she, Forman and Kundra did. “I think the [federal CIO] job will continue to evolve as the government’s services continue to evolve,” she said.

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