Survey details federal CIO concerns

For government information technology chiefs, the goal for federal agencies is becoming clearer: Deliver government services via computer around the clock into citizens' homes over secured connections.

Less clear is how to accomplish that goal.

A survey of 34 federal chief information officers shows that federal agencies face an array of daunting problems — from how to provide secure, interruption-free services via the Internet, to how to recruit, train and retain enough IT workers.

"Critical infrastructure protection and security" is the top concern for government CIOs, according to the Information Technology Association of America, which surveyed CIOs from 31 federal agencies and Congress.

Increasingly, agencies are dependent on the World Wide Web to conduct the "mission-critical business of government," said Paul Wohlleben, head of the government sector of IT firm Grant Thornton LLP. Agency CIOs have identified lots of ways to use the Internet to deliver government services, he said.

However, the ability to "move to the next level of technology-assisted government and commerce" depends on being able to have reliable Internet access, ITAA said in its survey report. While CIOs agree that Web services must be protected against disruptions — whether from unstable operating environments or terrorism — "there was little understanding of the issue and how to address it," ITAA reported.

The CIOs suggested that a "security czar" might be needed to focus attention and federal spending on improving security. They also said they are counting on the Defense Department and intelligence agencies to solve most of the security problems. Those agencies are far ahead of most on security matters.

Even secure Internet service cannot run without IT workers, and the government is facing an IT work force crisis. More than half of the government's IT workers will be eligible to retire within three years. Many will go on to second careers in the private sector, said Wohlleben, who headed the ITAA survey.

The problem posed by mass retirements is compounded by the government's inability to attract young IT workers, he said. So many potentially lucrative opportunities exist outside government that "radical change is required" if the government hopes to compete. A growing number of young people are risk takers who want partnerships or part ownerships and are uninterested in a typical government salaried job. "A few thousand dollars a year more [in pay] won't make a difference," he said.

Agencies also are struggling to develop ways to assess how effective their investments in information technology are. Although required by law to create "architectures" against which to measure their operations, ITAA found that few agencies actually do so, Wohlleben said.

Architectures are created and shelved, and most agencies remain unable to calculate their return on investments in information technology. "By and large, they just don't have the data," he said.

Many agencies are resistant to contracting out functions to the private sector, and those that are amenable have difficulty getting funding for contracting, the survey found.

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