DOT CIO gains responsibility, clout

Congressional appropriators recently gave the Transportation Department's chief information officer more formal authority over information technology expenditures — a sign that federal CIOs gradually are getting the responsibility they desire.

The conference report for DOT's fiscal 2001 appropriations act sends major IT procurements and other projects, such as common grants systems, to the DOT CIO for approval before moving forward. The language is consistent with IT capital-planning duties and other responsibilities provided to the CIO in the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

"I think it's a large step in the right direction for DOT and the federal government of backing up what was the intent of Clinger-Cohen with some real authority," said George Molaski, the department's CIO. Congress gave the Agriculture Department's CIO similar authority in 1999 to centralize IT spending and oversight for the agency's 30 subagencies.

"It did make a difference to have that authority," said Anne Reed, who was Agriculture CIO when the legislation was passed. She is now vice president for industry relations at Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s Global Government Industry Group.

Because the provision became law, the CIO earned support to crack down on Agriculture agencies that did not comply, Reed said. DOT's authority is stated in conference report language, so it acts as an advisory rather than a statute for the department and may not carry the same weight, she said.

"Nevertheless, you ignore your authorizing and appropriations committee at your own peril," Reed said.

Managing basic infrastructure and telecommunications gives the CIO more leverage to support enterprisewide proj--ects, Reed said. If separate administrations proposed five initiatives in the same area, the CIO could marry them into a single agency-wide solution. But the CIO does not have to look at every IT program, she said.

"You structure and manage your authority in ways that don't bring the whole organization to a standstill," Reed said. "The way to do that is a good capital planning process."

The DOT and Agriculture revisions are consistent with the responsibilities that CIOs seek and with what Clinger-Cohen envisioned, said Renny DiPentima, who was the deputy commissioner for systems at SSA until becoming president of SRA International Inc.'s government sector in 1995. Those duties include investment analysis and capital planning.

"This is most definitely a move in the right direction," DiPentima said.

For most agencies, however, if a CIO participates in the review process for any IT expenditure, he or she already has a lot of authority, DiPentima said. For instance, SRA helped the Department of Health and Human Services create the procedures for an investment review board with broad criteria for the programs the CIO will look at, he said.

"They didn't need legislation," he said. "If your secretary is willing to support you, then you don't need legislation."

DOT has been making strides in improving the coordination and oversight of its CIO office. It has chartered a departmentwide CIO Council for IT representatives from each of the 23 operating administrations and is expanding the size of the CIO office (see box).

The number of IT programs within DOT is officially about 450, Molaski said, but could range up to 1 million. Part of carrying out the new duties involves creating a reporting mechanism to help the CIO understand where each of the agencies are in their IT portfolios, he said.

"I will look at major and highly visible programs and those that are over budget and over schedule," Molaski said. Such programs include e-mail system upgrades and personnel information systems.

With better reporting of all IT programs, DOT may be able to consolidate operations, such as help desks, Molaski said. "I believe there will be more of this coming in the next administration because it's the only way to get IT under control," he said.

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