Nature of CIO Council undecided

The emerging Chief Information Officers Council could become either an influential force in information technology management and procurement or a "debating society" that shares war stories over lunch, depending on how seriously its members take their charge, according to federal IT officials and industry observers.

Meanwhile, some agencies are trying to nudge the future council into a position of authority by defining it formally as the conduit for all interagency IT initiatives. An unofficial CIO working group, together with the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, is debating just how much power the council will have under a pending executive order.

How successful the working group is in shaping this and a host of other new IT management and procurement policies required by the newly enacted Information Technology Management Reform Act (ITMRA) offers hints as to how much clout the future CIO Council could have. Working group members expect many of their suggestions to be adopted by OMB over the next two months.

"The fact that OMB has been involved with this sends every signal that they will be receptive," said Alan Balutis, CIO of the Commerce Department. An official with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control Communications and Intelligence, said the working group's ideas "should be seen as an up-front preview" of the final policies.

Not all members of the working group will be appointed as their agencies' CIOs and become members of the council, although some likely will. Bruce McConnell, chief of OMB's Information Policy Branch, said, "We have received three or four submissions from agencies" proposing CIO appointments "and are reviewing them for consistency with the statute and policy."

So far the working group has drafted a model job description for CIOs, proposed a charter for the CIO Council outlining how it will operate and weighed in on which parts of the Federal Information Resources Management Regulation, which was repealed by ITMRA, are still relevant. Within the next few weeks, the group will propose guidelines for managing information systems as capital investments.

"Any adjustments are going to be modest tinkering around the edges," said John Koskinen, OMB's deputy director for management. "It's been a dialogue as we moved along."

One point the agencies and OMB have yet to resolve is what role GSA will play in IT policy making because the repeal of the Brooks Act stripped the agency of most of its formal role. Several agencies, including DOD, have argued that the CIO Council should take over GSA's policy and management support functions.

"OMB can use the CIO Council as a sounding board for new initiatives, for providing advice, research and implementation assurance on issues important to the administration or for assisting OMB with their increased responsibilities under ITMRA," the DOD official said.

The law says the CIO Council should "advise and coordinate the activities of the agencies" by obtaining advice on technology and management issues, recommending new policies to OMB and suggesting ways agencies can coordinate their IT resources better. A congressional source involved with drafting the law said, "GSA shouldn't have a role. The CIO Council should be autonomous."

But Koskinen said agencies should not discount the help that GSA could provide them if they want it. "People would like to make sure in the agencies that they have the authority that [ITMRA] meant to give them," he said. "Most of the people sitting around the table in agencies are used to having to battle against people telling them what to do. My hope is they understand that is not how this is being set up."

"Everyone agrees the CIO Council should have a very strong role," said Shereen Remez, the acting CIO at GSA.

In no case would the CIO Council have any power to enforce new policies; only OMB could do so. But Koskinen said that even though OMB might not adopt every suggestion the council might make, "in most cases it is inconceivable that OMB would go, on an operational matter, 180 degrees the other way" from policies that agencies agree to support.

Private Industry Weighs In

Phil Kiviat, vice president of business development with Sterling Software Inc.'s federal office, noted that the proposed charter for the council describes its duties as to "share, identify, assess and recommend, provide advice, seek the views. There are not a whole lot of authority-type words, so the CIO Council isn't intended to be the kind of body that is going to direct anything."

As an advisory group, however, the CIO Council could be "very effective," said Kiviat, who has attended most meetings of the interagency working group. Even the working group has "been effective in knitting together" agency IT officials "who were not even plugged in" to the latest management initiatives, he said.

Some contend that the attitude that council members take toward the group is more critical than how the council's role is officially defined.

"You've got to have a group of active individuals that take on issues to resolve them," said Morgan Kinghorn, a consultant with Coopers & Lybrand.

Kinghorn, a former Internal Revenue Service chief financial officer, said a similar Chief Financial Officers Council established by law six years ago became noticed only when its members decided to set, and act upon, a specific agenda.

Dean Mesterharm, the deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration, agreed. "A lot depends on how well they work as a group and whether they present plausible, viable products for the government to use," he said.

Wardell Townsend, the assistant secretary for administration at the Agriculture Department, believes the CIO Council will have an important role in setting governmentwide standards for systems. Also, he said, the relationship between the agency CIOs and OMB would create a broader understanding within government of what CIOs do.


- Allan Holmes contributed to this report.


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