CIOs still seeking higher profile

The rumors began to fly last October after Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson lowered the position of HHS' chief information officer and reduced its clout.

Was the Bush administration trying to push CIOs out of the federal government's top management tiers? There were whispers of attempts to disenfranchise CIOs by moving them laterally, into positions with only superficial authority. Some CIOs, it was said, were no longer being invited to meetings where they once held sway.

Eight months after President Bush named Mark Forman associate director of information technology and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget — in essence, the first CIO for the federal government — a number of other federal CIOs don't have nearly the influence mandated by the Clinger-Cohen Act, say experts on the law.

But that's not a new problem by any stretch of the imagination, they add.

"The notion that CIOs have less clout these days is interesting," said Paul Brubaker, chief executive officer of Aquilent Inc., who was an aide to then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) when Clinger-Cohen was approved in February 1996. "But they've never really been in the position where they should have been in the first place."

CIOs should have both strategic authority, which is the power to make agencywide plans, and tactical authority, which is the power to program systems, hire IT staff and run day-to-day operations, said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA International Inc.'s consulting and systems integration unit, and former deputy commissioner and CIO at the Social Security Administration.

"The difficulty is when the CIO is in more of a staff position," said DiPentima, who advised the government about how to make Clinger-Cohen work. "When CIOs are in a strategic position, not a tactical one, they control very little money and resources. As a result, many CIOs in the past have felt that, 'I have the title and I think I have important things to contribute, but I don't control the resources I need to control to get the job done.' "

Congress passed Clinger-Cohen in reaction to years of high-profile IT failures, including the decade-long modernization project at the Internal Revenue Service that had to be aborted after billions of dollars had been spent.

The law created the CIO position and set basic guidelines for agencies to manage IT programs and investments. The year Clinger-Cohen became law, OMB issued guidelines on implementing the law that stated that "the person selected [as CIO] should report to the agency head directly, and not through another official."

In his HHS reorganization, Thompson split the job that had included CIO duties into two separate positions. The CIO duties were reassigned to a lower position, and the person in that position — currently Dennis Williams, in an acting capacity — reports to one of those executives rather than Thompson.

Stories of other CIOs being pressured to find new positions or agree to an arrangement where they would no longer report to the agency head, cropped up after the HHS reorganization. In a recent interview, Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James acknowledged that such tales could be true in a few isolated cases.

"But is there any systemic change underfoot? No," James said in mid-March. "I think we need to elevate the role of the CIO, the [chief financial officer and] the chief human capital officer — they make up the strategic management team that works with the [chief operating officer] in every agency. And if you don't have those elements working together at a very high level, I can tell you that you don't have a high-performing organization."

Both Brubaker and DiPentima consider Forman's appointment a sign that the clout of federal CIOs is going to be on the rise.

"The problem is that the federal government is totally wedded to an Industrial Age bureaucratic structure that's totally ill-suited to solve Information Age problems," Brubaker said. "But with Mark, for the first time you've got somebody at OMB who really understands Clinger-Cohen."

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