COMMENTARY

CIOs gain responsibilities but still lose ground

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

I recently attended one of the many “Farewell, Vivek” events. Quite an evening: seven introductory remarks by six speakers representing five organizations. Fifteen-plus minutes of introductions for an eight-minute speech by the guest of honor. The night before, the CIO Council and the Office of Management and Budget powers turned out in force to wish Federal CIO Vivek Kundra well as he heads off for a semester at Harvard University. One of the topics on the minds of many of those IT leaders was the Aug. 8 memo from OMB Director Jack Lew titled “Chief Information Officer Authorities.”

I’ve written several times about the challenging role of CIOs in the federal government, most recently about a soon-to-be-released Government Accountability Office report on how the position could be improved and strengthened. Lew’s memo reads like a pre-emptive move to respond to and support GAO.

GAO found that CIOs do not consistently have responsibility for 13 major areas of IT and information management as defined by law or deemed critical to effective IT management. Specifically, most CIOs are responsible for seven key IT management areas: capital planning and investment management; enterprise architecture; information security; IT strategic planning; e-government initiatives; systems acquisition, development and integration; and IT workforce planning.

By contrast, they are less frequently responsible for information management duties such as information collection/paperwork reduction, information dissemination, information disclosure, statistical policy and coordination, records management, and privacy. Just over half of the CIOs reported directly to the heads of their respective agencies as required by the Clinger-Cohen Act. CIOs do not always have sufficient control over IT investments, and they often have limited influence over the IT workforce. Most telling perhaps is their limited control and influence over IT budgets. The GAO report concludes that, “despite the broad authority given to CIOs in federal law, those officials face limitations that hinder their ability to effectively exercise this authority.”

Lew’s memo, although likely intended as a response to GAO’s report, is a somewhat puzzling missive. In a tone softer than expected even from a “kinder and gentler” OMB, it largely ignores the main findings of GAO’s report. Instead, it presumes that CIOs have and are executing all the responsibilities and authorities given them and that we need to give them even more, to wit: “In addition to their statutory responsibilities through the Clinger-Cohen Act and related laws...there are four main areas in which agency CIOs shall have a lead role.”

One could read that as “in addition to the other needed authorities denied them and their failure to have the required responsibilities, CIOs should also be denied the following four key authorities and responsibilities.”

The four new areas are governance, commodity IT, program management and information security. As noted above, information security is already a CIO responsibility under statute. Left unclear is whether the remaining three will be added to the seven most CIOs are currently responsible for or to the six they are less frequently responsible for.

I predict the scoring in the next GAO report — released circa 2018 because the agency seems to do this report every seven years — will be 7 to 9, and they can keep the same conclusion. By the time the report is formally issued, yet another Cabinet agency will have downgraded the CIO in its organizational structure, as has already happened at the Social Security Administration, Defense Department, Health and Human Services Department, Agriculture Department, and others.

Who disagrees with me? I won’t consider this matter closed until I hear from Paul “Just Read the Report Language” Brubaker.

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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