Editorial: Show ’em the money

DHS' decision to give the CIO spending authority across the agency is an important step -- for the agency and for CIOs.

The time will come when people will have to explain why federal chief information officers did not make all major information technology spending decisions in their organizations. But in our time, it was big news when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that the headquarters CIO would control IT spending for the entire department.

DHS CIO Scott Charbo is only the second IT executive in the federal government to get that vaunted authority.  Charbo got it with a stroke of Chertoff’s pen. Robert Howard, the CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs, has that authority by law.

People still debate whether a central CIO should have control over all agency IT spending. During the recent Government IT Executive Council’s Information Processing Interagency Conference 2007, some people argued that those who manage agency programs are best equipped to make IT decisions. But many observers suggested that a better alternative would be for central CIOs to create a governance organization in which the CIO and program leaders
could collaborate on IT spending decisions.

Undoubtedly, IT governance organizations are necessary. Too often, the central CIO is left out of high-level decision-making. For example, DHS’ central CIO does not report directly to Chertoff, despite language in the Clinger-Cohen Act making that a legal requirement. DHS’ organizational chart lists almost two dozen people who report directly to Chertoff, but Charbo is not on that list. He reports to DHS’ deputy director for management.

All that aside, Chertoff’s decision to centralize IT spending authority in the CIO’s office at DHS is an important step. Giving the office that spending authority should not preclude creating a new governance process, and DHS appears to have established one that will enable its 22 agencies to work as a cohesive organization.

But nothing in government beats having power over spending. Bob Woods, president of TopSide Consulting, perhaps put it best: “You can get more done with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word.”

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