The CIO puzzle: 'It's not that simple'

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In the last six months, the federal government has experienced a mass exodus of chief information officers. Several longtime CIOs announced they were leaving government or retiring, and others moved from one agency to another.  Among those who had notably exceeded the average lifespan of a federal CIO -- 18-24 months -- and announced they were leaving were General Services Administration’s Casey Coleman, Treasury’s Robyn East and the Commerce Department’s Simon Szykman.

Cultural and political challenges facing CIOs has been a bone of contention in the federal IT community for years, and Tech America and Grant Thornton provide some insight in their annual survey, "CIO/CISO Insights: Achieving Results and Confronting Obstacles."

The survey compiled interviews with 59 CIOs, CISOs, information resource officials and congressional oversight committee staff from 32 organizations.


Surveyed CIOs agreed that workforce issues are their number one challenge. Budget cuts and hiring freezes paired with a growing workload mean CIOs are struggling to maintain a workforce that can effectively address day-to-day issues while  thinking about long-term strategy.

Attracting and retaining top talent, skills gaps, workforce planning, and changing skills and competencies are among the challenges that CIOs meet daily when managing and trying to expand their workforce.

Most of my techies are spending their time on human resource and acquisition. It’s dragging us down.

At a panel discussion June 5 in conjunction with the release of the study at the National Press Club, a trio of federal executives -- Lisa Schlosser, deputy associate administrator at the E-Gov office at the Office of Management and Budget; Larry Zelvin, director of the National Cyber and Communications Integration Center at the Homeland Security Department; and Bill Zielinski, CIO at the Social Security Administration --  said a slow and outdated human resources and hiring process makes it difficult to stay competitive in recruiting top talent.

Schlosser said she and other IT leaders in government are trying to address the issue directly. A CIO Council subcommittee headed by Transportation Department CIO Richard McKinney and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission CIO Darren Ash is looking at the skill sets needed to succeed in today’s environment, training individuals already in government to take on different roles, and spreading the gospel on agile development processes and methodology.

At SSA, Zielinski said IT managers are being encouraged to be involved from the every beginning of the process

At DHS, Zelvin said IT leadership is intimately involved in the selection and hiring process. A big challenge is expediting the process, especially where security clearances are concerned. It simply takes too long, he said.

Even when using direct hiring authority, which he sometimes does, the process can still not be as quick or easy as it should be, Zelvin said.

Empowering CIOs

According to CIOs, the second area that could be helped most by legislation is CIO empowerment, following acquisition. Currently CIOs said they control less than 50 percent of their budget.

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The issue of CIO budget authority is “not that simple,” Zelvin said – the extent of flexibility CIOs have varies greatly from agency to agency – but more important than controlling the purse strings is having a voice in the conversations where decisions are made, panelists agreed.

“My experience is that you don’t need to sign off on every dollar spent on procurement, but what we do need to do is have a seat at the table when strategy is being established, when a budget is being put in place, when the priorities are being laid out, what the agency or organization is going to invest in in terms of technology,” Schlosser said. “Making sure there is that language between business strategy and mission for what we’re spending the IT dollars on.”

CIOs agreed that government initiatives such as PortfolioStat have helped them to more effectively track their spending: 42 percent found that PortfolioStat helped reduce redundant spending, 39 percent said it didn’t, and 19 percent said it is still unknown. However, 60 percent said it has had an impact on their agency’s understanding of IT spending.

“I think it is important for CIOs to ask questions and peel it back, and make sure we’re focusing in the right areas and on the right things,” Zielinski said. “But it’s not necessarily like I’m driving strategy, or in that sense, controlling the dollars.”

Cyber and other priorities

The number one priority for CIOs is security of their IT and infrastructure. Across the board, spending has increased for cybersecurity, moving up hand-in-hand with an increase in cyber threats.

More than 40 percent of respondents said there has been a 25 percent increase in cyber threats, and 17 percent of respondents noted a 51-100 percent increase over the past year.

Meanwhile, CIOs complain, too many of their employees are engaged in activities not directly related to fulfilling their missions.

“A lot of my techies are doing acquisition work, work they’ve never been trained to do and have no experience in,” Zelvin said. “Human resources is a massive problem. Most of my techies are spending their time on human resource and acquisition. It’s dragging us down.”

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a former staff writer for FCW.

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