McConnell: Do CIOs matter?

Chief information officers are not irrelevant. But they are endangered unless they can demonstrate and articulate their own value.

Federal Computer Week recently reported that more than half of the CIOs in major federal agencies did not have a seat at the management table. But if misery loves company, those CIOs can feel better. They are not alone.

A recent Deloitte & Touche LLP survey (www. found that 60 percent of private-sector CIOs in the United Kingdom are not significantly involved in developing firms' business strategies, and only 29 percent strongly feel that they are successful in measuring and communicating the value of information technology in business terms. In the report's words, they are firefighters, concentrating on hardware upgrades or system consolidations.

Part of the problem is a perception that the title is hype. Most CIOs are actually chief IT officers. Operational issues consume them, leaving them little time for transformation. They are busy trying to get enterprise e-mail to work and not thinking about mission strategy and how to leverage information. From senior managers' standpoint, it's as if they hired architects to design a new home, and they spent all their time working with the carpentry crew.

The dilemma is compounded in that it is still hard to get IT right. A recent FCW editorial was on the mark: "Unfortunately, the outsider status of most agency IT executives is probably closely related to ongoing problems with many technology systems." Why should a chief executive officer buy a strategy that comes from an office that appears to be responsible for cost overruns and runaway systems?

What should federal CIOs do? Fighting fires is important, but they must invest in the strategic side. For example, bringing experienced program people onto their team can add "street cred" in mission areas.

Such an investment supports the most critical step: measuring and communicating the value of IT in all areas. Its business case must go beyond the economic return on investment. How does the technology increase the end-to-end ratio? How many more veterans or small businesses will be highly satisfied? How much faster and more accurately will terrorists be identified? To quote Deloitte officials, CIOs must "learn another language — that of the front office. Teach senior management the value vocabulary. Tell the story of IT's achievements at the top of your organization and claim your seat at the management table."

And if they don't? One consequence of failing to learn how to incorporate the mission is increasingly clear: no money. The House Appropriations subcommittee for the Interior Department recently zeroed out the agency's request for e-government funding. In its report, subcommittee officials made it clear that they believe e-government competes for money with mission programs, rather than supports programs and delivers more effective mission performance. This is the path to irrelevance.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (

Read Federal Computer Week's recent columns

"McConnell: IT as more than an end" [Federal Computer Week, June 7, 2004]

"Book excerpt: Does IT matter?" [Federal Computer Week, June 7, 2004]

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