Federal IT czar position gets boost

A top federal chief information officer last week called on the government to create a federal IT czar, whose job would be to establish a common vision for information technology programs governmentwide. The idea has drawn cautious support from other federal CIOs.

Roger Baker, the Commerce Department's CIO, said the government needs a central manager who can offer federal agencies a common vision so that agencies' IT projects stay focused on improving the business of government.

"We need a federal CIO to focus on rationalizing" governmentwide IT procurement and management, Baker told a large group of industry representatives attending the 1999 Fall Procurement Conference sponsored by the Coalition for Government Procurement.

Baker, one of the first federal CIOs to formally endorse a position for a federal IT czar, said one of the main advantages of establishing a top CIO position would be to increase the government's scrutiny of its IT investments. "We're really very unwilling to cut in legacy programs," he said. "Government needs to rethink itself."

The government can do more to consolidate its IT resources as a means to lower operating expenses, Baker said. "There really could be a few federal enterprise networks" instead of the hundreds that now exist, he said.

Baker's remarks drew faint support from some federal CIOs and IT managers. "Depending on how it was structured, it would make some sense," said Anne Reed, CIO at the Agriculture Department. "One of the things we've struggled with is cross-department initiatives. To the extent that those could be facilitated by having a federal CIO, I think that could be really be beneficial."

The challenge, Reed said, is to structure the federal CIO position so it would be effective without creating a "bottleneck." It should be a Senate-confirmed position if that person is to have the authority needed to do the job, she added.

Deidre Lee, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at OMB, declined to comment, saying she first wants to fully understand Baker's proposal. Lee said there already is a lot of central coordination among agency CIOs. "We have the CIO Council, and the council is working together."

The CIO Council could fulfill the role of a federal CIO by focusing on larger policy and technology issues that cut across government, said George Molaski, CIO at the Transportation Department. "If the CIO Council gets funded and gets staffed, it would be like a federal CIO, but run more on an associative basis," he said.

The federal CIO notwithstanding, Molaski said, each agency must be able to play a part in determining the technologies and computer systems the agency chooses to pursue and develop. Under those circumstances, the CIO Council is an effective forum, he said.

The idea of a federal CIO was raised when lawmakers were drafting the Information Technology Management Reform Act (known as the Clinger-Cohen Act), which created the individual agency CIO positions. A draft of the bill included a provision that would create a federal CIO, who would work out of the Office of Management and Budget. But OMB protested and the proposal was dropped, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president with the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division.

"Overall, we support the concept of a federal CIO and supported it at the time" Clinger-Cohen was being drafted, Grkavac said. "On the other hand, we would need some [congressional] hearings to see what kind of responsibilities and authorities the CIO would have. It would have to be more spelled out than in the original proposal, [including] how the federal CIO would interact with the agency CIOs."

-- L. Scott Tillett contributed to this article.

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