Make way for the IT czar

Roger Baker, chief information officer at the Commerce Department, ignited

a fierce debate last October when he publicly endorsed the idea of establishing

a federal CIO, often referred to as an "IT czar." A half-year later, the

question "Do we need an IT czar?" continues to spark controversy, even as

support for it steadily grows.

The question is moot. We need an IT czar. Even its opponents tacitly

acknowledge this in their arguments. The question is how to make the concept

work.

Security is a case in point. A federal CIO, proponents say, could coordinate

agencies' efforts to recognize and respond to increasing threats to the

government's critical information systems. Likewise with e-government initiatives.

The federal CIO could play a central role in applications that draw on information

and services from multiple agencies.

People who oppose the concept of a federal CIO do not argue against

the need for such leadership. They argue that a federal CIO is unnecessary

because such leadership is available through organizations such as the Office

of Management and Budget and the CIO Council.

Indeed, OMB, chartered with overseeing agency budgets, appears to be

in the perfect spot to provide and enforce guidance on a wide range of technology

issues. Historically, the deputy director of management at OMB has filled

that role.

But the growing call for a federal CIO — heard in Congress, supported

by the General Accounting Office and picked up by presidential candidate

George W. Bush — suggests that many people have decided that OMB does not

have the resources, or perhaps even the credibility among agencies, to carry

out the job.

That is not to say that OMB has somehow abdicated the job. But given

the complexity of the issues at hand, the job may overwhelm OMB's resources.

The administration appeared to support that when it appointed a Year 2000

czar outside the auspices of OMB.

Opponents are right about one thing: It won't be easy to give the position

the authority to carry out the tasks at hand without undermining the work

of agency CIOs, OMB and key players.

With that said, let's move forward and begin the real task of figuring

out how to make the idea work.

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