IT czar should be leader first

With at least three bills calling for a federal information technology czar, there is clear interest in Congress for putting someone in charge of developing e-government. And a panel of e-government experts suggests that a management expert would be more valuable than a technology whiz.

The most important task for an IT czar or federal chief information officer won't be selecting computer systems or planning Web portals; it will be restructuring the federal bureaucracy to take advantage of the efficiencies that IT makes possible, said Kathleen Kingscott, public affairs director of IBM Corp.

But that's likely to be a long, difficult battle, Kingscott and other IT experts told the Congressional Information Technology Working Group May 3.

Federal agencies, and even divisions within agencies, tend to focus on defending "their jurisdictional turf." They pay little heed to the broader benefits IT could bring to government's mission of providing services to citizens, said Paul Brubaker, president of e-government solutions at Commerce One. Earlier this year, Brubaker was deputy CIO at the Defense Department.

Drawing on the experiences of IBM, which has transformed itself into an e-business, Kingscott said the federal government has much to gain, but much to overcome to become an e-government.

Just as the federal government is divided into agencies, IBM used to be divided into business units. The company decided to dissolve the business units and restructure the company as a single enterprise where communication and collaboration among employees was greatly increased, she said.

The process took years, but the benefits were substantial. IBM was able to consolidate a number of operations, including reducing the number of company data centers from 125 to 28. Besides dramatically cutting hardware costs, consolidation enabled IBM to move 27 percent of its employees out of jobs that involved operating systems and into jobs that involve customer transactions, she said.

Almost all of IBM's 5 million annual paper transactions were put online, cutting paperwork costs by 70 percent. The company saved the equivalent of 2.5 percent of the company's revenue, she said.

Such a transformation would yield enormous benefits for government. For example, a similar cost avoidance in the Pentagon would make billions of extra dollars available to the military, she said.

But making fundamental management changes in government is going to be tough, Brubaker said. A federal CIO will have to have exceptional leadership skills and substantial political clout to overcome the bureaucracy's territorial defenses, he said.

The political clout would come from making the CIO a very high-level job — either in the Office of Management and Budget or in the Executive Office of the President, Brubaker said. Lower-level officials are likely to be ineffective, he said. A CIO in OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs "lacks clout" because it "is buried within OMB," he said.

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