Recharging the CIO

As the Obama administration looks for more from CIOs, experts discuss the authorities and skills CIOs must have to be successful.

The Interior Department elevated the role of CIO Bernard Mazer last year by giving him control of all IT infrastructure assets and procurements and only allowing one person at Interior to have the title of CIO.

More on reinventing CIOs

Clinger-Cohen: Time for an update?

Those policy changes mean that Mazer is now more integrated into the business processes of the department, and experts say what happened at Interior is likely a precursor for actions at other agencies.

Fifteen years after the creation of the CIO position, the discrepancies among CIOs at different agencies are widely acknowledged. But the Obama administration is seeking to improve on this mixed bag of authorities by shifting the focus of CIOs from policy-making to portfolio management.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s IT management reform plan, released late last year, included strengthening the role of agency CIOs as one of 25 action items and set a six-month deadline for making progress on the initiative. However, administration officials have said little about how they intend to achieve that goal.

Nonetheless, examples like Interior and the Veterans Affairs Department’s consolidation of IT appropriations under its CIO a few years back present issues the administration should think about as it moves forward.

“The constant trend becomes more and more about business and less and less about technology,” said Roger Baker, VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology and the department's CIO. “I run this organization as if I’m the CEO of a $4 billion company.”

Along with oversight of the IT budget, the CIO should be considered a strategic adviser and must have a track record of managing complex processes, experts say. And whether a CIO is a career employee or a political appointee ultimately shouldn’t affect his or her ability to deliver results.

In the following analysis of popular discussion points, current and former government officials shed light on how the Obama administration can successfully reinvent the CIO.

Legislation: Clinger-Cohen got it right

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 required major agencies to appoint a CIO, and most experts agree that the Obama administration needs no further legislative authority to implement the CIO aspect of its IT reform plan.

According to the plan, agency CIOs would be responsible for “continuously identifying unmet needs to be addressed by new projects, terminating or turning around poorly performing projects, and retiring IT investments which no longer meet the needs of the organization.”

Karen Evans, a partner at KE&T Partners and former administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget, said she doesn’t believe the Obama administration’s initiative warrants new legislation because Clinger-Cohen already authorizes the agency CIO to be a strategic adviser.

For instance, the law states that the CIO is supposed to “monitor the performance of information technology programs of the agency; evaluate the performance of those programs on the basis of the applicable performance measurements; and advise the head of the agency regarding whether to continue, modify or terminate a program or project.”

Paul Brubaker, a senior director of the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco Systems and a former deputy CIO at the Defense Department, similarly said he believes the CIO position is aptly described in Clinger-Cohen and its accompanying report language.

“The reason [the law] is constructed that way is to make sure agency heads had a person at the table who was well-versed in the mission and [understood how] the business process could be measurably improved, if not transformed, through the application of IT,” said Brubaker, who helped draft the law while working for then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine).

Brubaker attributed inconsistencies among the authorities of agency CIOs to a “function of evolution” and the extent to which agency leaders grasp the role a CIO is meant to perform.

So if the legal authority exists to bolster agency CIOs, the question then becomes: What is the Obama administration’s next move?

Alan Balutis, who served as the first CIO at the Commerce Department and is now a director in Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, said he sees Interior’s new policies as a model of what’s to come. “The administration and the federal CIO’s office are looking at where there are places to take steps in concert with departmental leadership to increase the position of the CIO,” he said.

Balutis added that he believes the administration will not work across the board but will instead target specific agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, where there is a need for improvement.

Ultimately, though, the administration might seek a combination of new policy and legislation. Baker said IT appropriations were consolidated under VA’s CIO through legislation, but he believes having agencies work in conjunction with lawmakers is the best option.

Political vs. career: A red herring?

Outside stakeholders might believe a politically appointed CIO has more sway than a career CIO, but those who have served in government say the type of appointment doesn’t matter.

When stressing that political and career CIOs perform equally well, sources often cite examples to illustrate their point. They note the achievements of career CIO Jerry Williams at the Housing and Urban Development Department and the accomplishments of politically appointed CIO Baker at VA.

Mark Forman, who served as the first governmentwide CIO, said you can find successful CIOs in both categories, and he doesn’t believe there needs to be a one-size-fits-all approach across government.

“To be quite honest, it comes down to the way the department head wants to manage their team,” said Forman, who recently co-founded a new cloud computing company focused on grants filing.

Others agreed that the talents of the CIO and the expectations of the department secretary or deputy secretary must be in alignment. “Those [CIOs] who do very well have the perfect storm of an agency head who gets what a CIO can do and a CIO who understands the strategic role in the organization,” Brubaker said.

Evans, who served as both a political and career CIO, had a slightly different take on the issue. She said some people believe that a politically appointed CIO can more quickly earn the trust of agency leaders. “I would turn that around: The trust comes from [CIOs] delivering results,” she said.

She added that CIOs are high enough up in most agencies that they will get invited to the leadership table. When they go to that first important meeting, they must prove they are supposed to be there and not cause “death by PowerPoint,” she said.

Brubaker agreed. “CIOs really have to be able to speak business-speak,” he said. “They can’t drive the strategic table into the technical weeds.”

Budget authority: Yes, please

The topic with the strongest consensus in the conversation about a CIO’s role is the importance of having influence over an agency’s IT spending.

“Money matters,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican lawmaker from Virginia who now works as the director of federal government affairs at Deloitte and Touche. “If you control the purse strings, you’re going to control outcomes.”

Baker agreed that in Washington, budget is everything. In his former CIO job at Commerce, he had what he referred to as a stop sign that he could use whenever he tried to convince the secretary to stop funding an IT program. Now, as VA’s CIO, he said he can stop funding a failing program simply by sending an e-mail message.

Baker said he halted 45 underperforming IT programs at VA in July 2009 and eventually canceled 12 of them. “That would be virtually impossible for any other CIO to do because they don’t control the budget,” he said. 

He added that although it was a bit painful for VA to go through the legislative process to give the CIO control over the IT budget, it has proven to be an essential strategy.

“It’s a great case study,” Baker said. “If it can be done at VA, it can be done at any federal agency.”

Although Baker is the only CIO to have full control over his agency’s IT budget by law, the Homeland Security Department gave its CIO authority over IT spending through a 2007 management directive.

Evans said she believes CIOs should have total budget authority, including over all IT procurements.

“Right now, in a lot of departments and agencies, CIOs issue policy, but they don’t have the ability to follow through on the enforcement of that policy,” she said. “They don’t have the authority all the way down the supply chain line.”

She advocated having agencies align the IT budget authority under the CIO so that he or she can determine which projects should move forward. OMB issued a memo in October 2008 reminding agency leaders that their CIOs are supposed to be included in budget preparations and the oversight of major IT investments.

If the CIO is going to manage the IT portfolio of an agency, then some degree of budget authority is critical, said Gary Labovich, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. “The ability to manage the portfolio means [CIOs] have to have an enterprise view of the agency,” he added.

The skill set: Get down to business

CIOs’ professional background varies from agency to agency, but all of them should have broad leadership skills and the ability to serve as strategic partners.

People who want to spend the bulk of their time on daily operations, such as keeping e-mail flowing, aren’t ideal candidates to fulfill a CIO position, former officials said. Instead, CIOs should be focused on activities such as developing and implementing a capital planning and investment control process.

Forman said CIOs should have a background in applying IT and an understanding of business process modernization and knowledge management. He also said they must have expertise in large-enterprise governance.

Balutis said the backgrounds of CIOs are increasingly varied, with some coming to the federal government from the private sector or the states, such as Teri Takai who was California’s CIO before moving to DOD. As a result, the importance of technical expertise is slowly dwindling. Now, the skills most commonly identified when determining what makes a good CIO are the ability to communicate well and build coalitions, he added.

Although there are no specific qualifications for becoming a CIO, Labovich said he believes consultants have the kind of experience that meshes well with the position because many consultants who have worked with federal agencies have dealt with contracts and facilitated communications between vendors and the government.

In terms of private-sector experience, anyone who has been the CIO or CEO of a small to midsize company is likely qualified for a government CIO job, Baker said.

Some experts also say it might make sense for CIOs to have term appointments of four to six years to ensure continuity in agencies’ IT investment profiles.

“Technology projects are long-term,” Labovich said. “I think it would be helpful to have a CIO who has a long-term view of the agency.”

Balutis said the Obama administration could consider the Internal Revenue Service’s approach of hiring people at senior levels and paying them beyond the Senior Executive Service level in exchange for an appointment that usually lasts five years. It could be a model for how to keep CIOs in their positions longer.

However, some experts were leery of instituting a governmentwide mandate. From their perspective, Clinger-Cohen provides a baseline of authority and any further determinations should be left to the agency’s CIO and management team.

The CIO Council: The best forum for new ideas.

As the Obama administration seeks to redefine the role of the CIO, the CIO Council should be its sounding board.

Kundra, the council’s director, should use that group as a way to test the waters on new policies related to CIOs, sources said. The administration indicated in its reform plan that it also wants the council to play a portfolio management role, but at a cross-agency level.

Evans said she took advantage of the council’s expertise during her tenure at OMB and sees the group as a “forum to discuss the ideas of where you want to go.”

Forman added that the council, which was codified in the E-Government Act of 2002, was created to serve that purpose.

“The CIO Council is the principal interagency forum for improving agency practices related to the design, acquisition, development, modernization, use, sharing, and performance of federal information resources,” the council states on its website.

OMB should develop guidance and look to the council to provide feedback, Forman said. And because agency CIOs have mixed levels of authority, the council is a way for them to collaborate and make more of an impact as a group.

“CIOs can come [together] and create much more synergy,” Forman said. “They can be much more powerful in improving performance across government.”

He added that the council could facilitate more rapid deployment of shared strategies or initiatives, such as cloud computing, and help accomplish performance goals that a single CIO could not achieve on his or her own.

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