Boosting CIOs' stature

The government must find ways to improve the effectiveness of federal chief information officers, experts and lawmakers said during a House subcommittee hearing this week.

Government Accountability Office officials presented a report to the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee, which held a hearing July 21 on CIOs' roles and responsibilities.

Congressional investigators found that many factors affect CIOs' effectiveness, especially the length of their tenures, which tends to be about two years. Most current CIOs and former information technology executives cited three to five years as the minimum time it takes for a CIO to become effective, according to GAO.

Others, such as Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator for e-government and IT, have argued that CIOs' effectiveness depends on the individuals, rather than a particular level of job experience.

Federal and private-sector CIOs seem to agree that they should "have a seat at the table," meaning they should be included in the business structure and have equal stature among other agency department heads, GAO officials found. But opinions are mixed about whether CIOs should report directly to agency leaders. Although GAO found that CIOs generally report to agency heads, eight of the 19 with a direct reporting relationship also report to another senior executive on an operational basis.

Agency officials suggested that Congress consider changing statutory requirements to boost CIOs' effectiveness. Making the position subject to Senate confirmation could boost the position's stature, said Paul Brubaker, former deputy CIO for the Defense Department and now executive vice president of SI International Inc. "It's a pecking order-issue," he told committee members.

Some observers say CIOs could be required to stay longer than the median two years if the posts were politically appointed and confirmed by the Senate. But a turf battle between the House and Senate may be in store if lawmakers pursue that track.

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, questioned the advantages of handing responsibility to senators. "It's an ego issue for the Senate," he said.

Agencies' mixed success on IT projects despite a $60 billion IT budget for fiscal 2005 has generated broad concern. Differing views on the proper reporting structure and questions about quick turnover in the past underscore the relative newness of the federal CIO position, created by the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

A lack of IT management and sufficient budgets for projects presents the biggest challenges to federal CIOs, according to GAO's report. It cites managing an organization's natural resistance to change and collaborating and communicating inside and outside the organization as secondary challenges.

Brubaker said his experience indicates that department officials initially do not understand CIOs' roles and responsibilities. "The first time you start snooping around IT investments, people tend to get pretty excited," he said.

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