CIOs: The more things change…

Give OMB credit for trying to strengthen the CIO's role, but more dramatic steps are needed, writes Alan Balutis.

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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