McConnell: Lines of responsibility

CIOs either need to increase capabilities or reduce responsibilities

GAO report: Chief Information Officers: Responsibilities and Information and Technology Governance..

A recent Government Accountability Office report comparing the responsibilities of private- and public-sector chief information officers suggests flaws in the current federal CIO structure. Federal CIOs have too many responsibilities and not enough support to fulfill them.

Although CIOs from both sectors are responsible for information technology oversight and investment management, federal CIOs have greater responsibility than many of their commercial counterparts in two important areas: strategic planning and enterprise architecture. Success in those two areas requires greater collaboration at more senior levels than is necessary to complete more operational or technical jobs, such as investment management and information security.

But securing senior-level collaboration remains an elusive prospect for most CIOs.

This reality appears in the different ways that public and private CIOs describe their principal challenges. GAO found that company CIOs identified challenges such as increasing IT's contribution to the bottom line, controlling IT costs, increasing IT efficiencies and using technology to improve business processes. In contrast, federal CIOs tend to mention overcoming organizational barriers and obtaining sufficient resources as their most difficult challenges.

In theory, at least two ways exist to address this mismatch between responsibility and capability: either increase capability or reduce responsibility.

The first approach is to bring stronger CIOs into government and empower them. But that is not working. Notwithstanding the law, most federal CIOs do not report to their agency's executive. Nor has government placed people with experience and understanding of agency missions in those positions. Fixed-term appointments of five or more years that would extend across presidential administrations have been proposed to address capacity issues in this and other areas. But the 10-year term appointments of the FBI director during the past 32 years have hardly proven to be a panacea for the bureau's deep-seated cultural resistance to change.

Perhaps it's time to try the second approach by limiting CIOs' responsibilities to what they can reasonably accomplish.

Take strategic planning and enterprise architecture off the table, and kick those duties upstairs to the chief operating officer. And divest the CIO of the statutory responsibility for paperwork reduction, privacy, statistical policy, records management and information dissemination, which CIOs rarely discharge in any meaningful way.

The simplification would enable CIOs to focus on managing and overseeing IT investments and increase the chances that IT will make its intended contribution to agencies' mission performance.

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

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