Where's the CIO?

The 100-day mark has passed for the new administration, and many departments are still lacking permanent chief information officers, raising concerns over what those vacancies mean for agency systems.

Among major departments, about half are either operating under an acting CIO, have no CIO or soon will have no CIO. And with the Bush administration struggling to fill other senior posts, filling the departmental CIO positions, at least at the moment, is playing second fiddle to more pressing appointments. The CIO vacancies pose a good news/bad news scenario. Roger Baker, who is leaving the Commerce Department CIO position next week, said day-to-day work will continue under the guidance of the lower-level CIOs. "They're the people who have to get empowered for the changes that can occur to happen." But it's the long-term programs that could feel the impact, Baker said. "Department CIOs are really the long-term change agents," he said. "We work on how do we change the structure and policy of an organization" to make it work better in the long term. "It's going to have no impact on the next year. It will be felt two to three years out," he said.

The department CIO acts as an advocate for infrastructure programs and has the ear of the department secretary, who can go to bat for important information technology investments, Baker said. For instance, former Commerce Secretary William Daley made several calls to Capitol Hill to get $4 million in funding to rewire the headquarters building this year.

Filling CIO posts will soon be at the top of the agenda, Baker said, because "the pain [that departments] will feel from issues related to IT will be rather high."

Jim Flyzik, CIO at the Treasury Department, acknowledged that there is a CIO brain drain, but he said it's a "cyclical process" and is to be expected whenever there is a new administration.

Also, many CIOs are leaving for the private sector but continue advising agencies. "Obviously, we're losing institutional knowledge, but many of the CIOs have landed with companies and are transferring institutional knowledge from government to local companies," Flyzik said. Meanwhile, other essential positions to IT continue to remain unfilled. There are only a handful of deputy secretaries and a few chief financial officers who have been put in place, said Alan Balutis, executive director and chief operating officer for the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils and FGIPC's Industry Advisory Council. Roughly two-thirds of the CFO positions are political appointments and one-third of the CIO positions are political, Balutis said.

"If you look at the legislative calendar for the rest of the balance of the year, the main focus has to be on appropriations bills," Balutis said. In addition, budgets for fiscal 2003 are due to the Office of Management and Budget in September. Many of those will be created without CIOs and CFOs to direct and oversee them, Balutis said. "In many cases, you're not going to have political appointees in place to guide those through."

An underlying problem is the approval process for political appointees, said Paul Brubaker, president of e-government solutions at Commerce One Inc. and former deputy CIO at the Defense Department.

The political approval process is "convoluted and antiquated" and creates a "ripple effect" on other positions, Brubaker said, adding that the process should be automated as much as possible. "It will take a long time to get top management in place. [Agencies] won't focus on the CIO slots until [senior management is] in place."

Even though there are many vacant positions, the administration is still committed to the use of technology to improve agency processes, he added. And how effective can an acting CIO be? It depends. Many smaller programs will continue because "the business case is there to back them up," Brubaker said. "Nothing bad should happen because those people are good custodians, but to do something bold and innovative, it might be a little more difficult. When you introduce risk, then you need someone confirmed to be able to play the political game."

It's difficult for CIOs to "go out and kick butt" when they are acting in that role, Baker said. "The key lesson I've learned is you can't take a day off from kicking butt. In government you can move mountains, but you have to lean on them every day. You have to get people to lean on them, you have to bring them along."

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