Catching the wave

The high turnover rate of federal chief information officers during the past two years is not surprising, or necessarily alarming, say current and former CIOs.

Since the Bush administration opened shop in January 2001, only very few department CIOs held over from the Clinton administration remain in their jobs. Their replacements, for the most part, have come from industry.

Early on, the Bush administration tapped Unisys Corp. executive Mark Forman as associate director for information technology and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget — the government's de facto CIO. Since then, the trend has continued.

The White House has no policy telling agencies to hire CIOs from industry, Forman said, but with contractors performing so much of the government IT work, it makes sense that some of them would come from industry.

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which created the CIO position, "always had the view that the CIOs would be the change agents," he said. It does not matter, he added, where a CIO comes from, "as long as agencies are hiring someone who is a competent change agent."

However, some say off the record that these changes are hard to deny.

The trend is consistent with Clinger-Cohen and is "overdue in terms of people who are supposed to be put in as CIOs," said Paul Brubaker, a partner with ICG Government who helped draft the act.

During the Clinton administration, many agencies promoted their information resource management directors without considering whether they had the right skills to lead as CIOs, he said. What counts, he said, is having "familiarity with business processes, best practices and having a business background."

This may discourage career employees with an eye on the CIO job, Brubaker said, but "there is a role for folks in government in the organizations to help the CIOs to navigate the cultural obstacles to success. That was originally envisioned in the law."

There is nothing fundamentally better about a person from industry, said Roger Baker, an executive vice president at CACI International Inc. But the perception is that a person from industry is more likely to "make things change in the organization," he said.

Robert Otto, chief technology officer at the U.S. Postal Service and a career employee, believes that federal managers who have worked their way up through the ranks "should be seriously considered" for CIO of an agency.

"Remember, it is not how great the individual is but how effective they leverage the assets of the corporation and the personnel network they have built on the way to the top," he said.

However, support from upper management is essential for any CIO. Strong support translates into clout, said Baker, who was CIO at the Commerce Department. And just because a CIO is a career person does not mean he or she will be around a long time, he said. A new administration usually brings with it new CIOs.

"It doesn't matter who you are, you will be kicked out," Baker said. "We might as well recognize that's going to happen and make sure that person is hand-selected. Almost every political position has a career deputy who really runs the thing. The deputy provides the consistency."

Diane Frank contributed to this article.

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Moving in

The Bush administration has tapped many industry leaders to be chief information officers at major federal departments. Here are some examples:

Agriculture Department: Scott Charbo, mPower3 Inc. Start date as CIO: August 2002

Homeland Security Department: Steve Cooper, Corning Inc. Start date as CIO: January 2003

Internal Revenue Service: John Reece*, Time Warner Inc. Start date as CIO: March 2001 (leaving government)

Justice Department: Vance Hitch, Accenture Start date as CIO: March 2002

Office of Management and Budget: Mark Forman, Unisys Corp. Start date as CIO: June 2001

Social Security Administration: Tom Hughes, private consultant. Start date as CIO: November 2002

Transportation Department: Daniel Matthews, Savantage. Start date as CIO: March 2003

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