CIOs see growth in stature, challenges

Federal chief information officers have more influence than ever before — with increased responsibility and accountability over factors that are often hard to define.

The CIO position was first established in the federal government in 1996 under the Information Technology Management Reform Act, which was later combined with the Federal Acquisition Reform Act to become the Clinger-Cohen Act.

ITMRA outlined CIOs' primary responsibility as providing advice and assistance to ensure that IT is acquired and managed "in a manner that implements the policies and procedures" of the agency.

Often ignored in the beginning, CIOs are just starting to get the recognition their colleagues in the private sector enjoy. They are routinely being involved in the budget process and the development of programs that directly impact employees and citizens.

{h3} OMB and a Change in Attitude

That didn't happen overnight. With support from the Office of Management and Budget and the President's Management Council, CIOs gradually expanded their reach from simply purchasing technology to helping decide how it would be used.

A governmentwide change in attitude didn't occur until 1998, when OMB started threatening to refuse budget requests for systems unless agencies involved the CIOs at the beginning of the program development cycle, said John Spotila, the former administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Clinton.

"It was a matter of trying to enlighten [the agency management] and get them to see it's the best way to do things," he said. "This is in one sense just process, but one could argue this is how fundamental change occurs."

With their increased role, however, comes increased accountability for federal CIOs. The Government Performance and Results Act requires agencies to link their programs to their performance and show how money brings results. Because CIOs now are involved in the budget decisions for information systems that support agency programs, they are also held responsible for showing results.

Regulations from OMB have long held the CIOs responsible for the security of the agency's systems, but the new Government Information Security Reform Act signed in October also makes the CIOs directly accountable to Congress.

{h3} CIO Council and the Federal CIO

There is also a new focus on the idea of a federal CIO to coordinate agency efforts and advise the president on IT matters. The concept has been kicking around for more than five years, but now with President Bush saying he will create such a position, agency CIOs and the federal CIO Council will have another role to play.

Then-President Clinton established the CIO Council by executive order in 1996 as the place to develop and support initiatives that could benefit multiple agencies. As part of what is basically a volunteer organization, CIOs, their deputies and staff pitch in time on top of their daily duties, but the council's role as coordinator and champion for agency projects has led to a higher profile.

"The council's gotten much stronger," said Roger Baker, CIO at the Commerce Department and co-chairman of the council's Security, Privacy and Critical Infrastructure Committee. "To some extent, they moved to fill a void of cross-governmental work that it's obvious we need to be doing — but at the time there was no mechanism for."

With a new federal CIO likely, the council could take on more of a supporting role. But someone with a direct line to the president will only continue to raise the profile of IT in government, and the CIOs with it, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division.

"You have to think that if you have a powerful federal CIO and they are doing a good job, then that transfers to the CIO Council and the agency CIOs," she said.


  • People
    Federal 100 logo

    Announcing the 2021 Federal 100 Award winners

    Meet the women and men being honored for their exceptional contributions to federal IT.

  • Comment
    Diverse Workforce (Image: Shutterstock)

    Who cares if you wear a hoodie or a suit? It’s the mission that matters most

    Responding to Steve Kelman's recent blog post, Alan Thomas shares the inside story on 18F's evolution.

Stay Connected