OMB issues CIO guides; critics consider them weak

The Office of Management and Budget this month provided agencies with preliminary guidance on appointing chief information officers, as required by the Information Technology Management Reform Act (ITMRA), which will go into effect Aug. 8.

But congressional sources involved in drafting the law said the new guidelines are weak and that CIOs will not have any more clout in the agencies than current information resources managers do.

"They need status to push reforms through that otherwise would not happen," one Capitol Hill aide said.

The law's sponsor, Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), said last week that he is pleased the administration has moved so quickly to implement it, but he questioned whether OMB would actively help agencies place suitable candidates "at the highest levels of federal agencies.

"The memo...does not indicate what proactive role, if any, OMB intends to play in filling these positions," Cohen said.

Some agency officials also apparently think the instructions, issued in a memo from OMB director Alice Rivlin April 4, are incomplete. Speaking to vendors last week, Mark Boster, deputy assistant attorney general for IRM with the Justice Department, said he had pushed to include guidance on training in the memo, but that was not part of the final version.

"I think there is a staggering training requirement" for agency program managers to learn business process re-engineering and related skills needed to carry out the law, Boster said. "I don't see it in our budget, and I don't know how we're going to tackle it."

The main point of contention, however, is a section of the guidelines that lets each department and agency decide where the CIO should be placed in its organizational chart and how much to pay that person.

During debate on the law last year, Cohen said the CIOs should be top managers with control over information technology investments and should have a seat at the table when IT spending decisions are made.

The OMB memo says CIOs must report directly to department secretaries or agency administrators and "actively participate" in planning, budgeting, business process redesign and development of IT performance measures. In addition, the memo says the CIO may be recruited from within or outside an agency and that agencies may appoint deputy CIOs or CIOs for their bureaus.

It also says that, in agencies where financial systems make up a large portion of IT investments, the same person could also act as the chief financial officer as long as his main responsibilities were for information systems.

Cohen said it was not the intent of the law to permit agencies to "add CIO duties to an existing position such as [CFO]."

Bruce McConnell, chief of OMB's information policy branch, said the administration wants to make the guidelines flexible. "We try to toe a fine line between telling agencies that one size fits all, which is not the case, and saying that the CIO [will] report to the agency head and be at the table," he said. "Each agency is different."

But an aide to Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.) on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee said the administration should be more aggressive in raising the CIOs' profile.

"I think there's some concern their focus is on being flexible rather than focusing on the importance of the CIO," the aide said. "We're not sure the way they have talked about the designation is the way we intended [it]."

One way lawmakers attempted to highlight the position was to allow agencies to make the job a high-level political appointment. McConnell said agencies could still do that if they wish, but "we're not necessarily interested in creating a whole bunch of new positions in headquarters."

A model job description that is being developed by an interagency group of current CIOs recommends that the post be an executive-level political appointment, as are agency CFOs.

McConnell said, "I don't think we'll change our minds on this point," but other aspects of the job description might be adopted in some way.

Renato DiPentima, the CIO of SRA Corp., said CIOs should be highly placed. "To the extent that it starts getting pushed down in the organization, then I think the effectiveness goes with it," he said.

But DiPentima, who was once the top IRM official at the Social Security Administration and who chairs an Industry Advisory Committee task force advising OMB on what CIOs should do, said there are pros and cons to making the position a top political appointment. Political appointees might have better access to agency leaders, but civil servants would be able to provide continuity in IT management through different administrations.

McConnell said more guidance on the role of CIOs may be included in upcoming revisions to OMB's Circular A-130, which details how agencies should manage their information systems, depending on "how much detail the agencies want."

Proposed revisions to A-130 that would carry out the provisions of ITMRA are expected to be issued by next month so they can be completed before the law takes effect Aug. 8. Revisions to Circular A-11, which tells agencies how to craft their budgets, are also due next month.

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-- Allan Holmes contributed to this report.

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