508: Leadership needed

It can't be said often enough — we need a federal chief information officer.

The latest proof of this is the fast- approaching deadline for federal agencies to comply with the Electronic and Information Technology Standards, known as Section 508. The law was drafted with the best of intentions — making agency technologies and Web sites equally accessible to all people, including those with disabilities.

After months of decrying Section 508 as another unfunded mandate, agencies are slogging through the 67-page law to figure out just what they're supposed to do. Problem is, the law sets out the standards, but no one has created checklists or "how-to" guides for agencies.

During two conferences held March 30 in Washington, D.C., attendees repeatedly pressed experts — government lawyers and those who drafted Section 508 — for specific advice. Too often, they were simply directed back to the law, which lays out the requirements and leaves the details up to the readers' interpretation, if not imagination. That leaves the federal government trying to define compliance — and how to achieve it — one agency at a time.

It's a problem of leadership — specifically the lack thereof. The federal government needs a top-level executive — call it a federal CIO or anything you want — to serve as an advocate for its technology policies. For example, the simple solution in this case is to develop one comprehensive plan — written in English, not legalese — to provide a road map for 508 compliance. The person drafting that plan needs the credentials to speak geek with the technology community and the clout to direct a governmentwide solution.

But step back a year or two, before Section 508 became law. A federal CIO could have worked closely with Congress to clarify the gibberish that has left agencies befuddled. In that sense, the federal CIO not only would serve as an advocate for government policy but for the agencies that must execute that policy.

Section 508 is just one of many examples — information assurance, e-government and e-commerce are others — that require strong IT leadership from the top.

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