CIOs struggle for clout
Survey by FCW Media Group confirms that frustration among public CIOs prompts short tenures despite long-term challenges
Almost half of the chief information officers serving at federal executive agencies in 2004 have quit their jobs, leaving others to fill those positions. The average tenure is about two years. Political appointees are typically gone in 19 months.
To find out what makes so many public CIOs rush for the door, FCW Media Group surveyed federal, state and local CIOs in late August and early September. Responses from that survey and interviews with former CIOs show that government's top technology officials are an increasingly frustrated bunch.
Government CIOs are continuously jostling to become major decision-makers at their agencies, compared with their private-sector counterparts, who have gained a large say in decisions that affect their companies' bottom line.
Many public CIOs want to contribute at a comparable level to help fulfill their agencies' mission, but they lack clout. Some former federal officials, however, say it is only a matter of time before government CIOs acquire the same respect now accorded to corporate CIOs.
Many public CIOs are frustrated when their role is to simply serve as information technology managers. They see themselves as seasoned executives who are also savvy about technology, although many agencies exclude them from important budget and acquisition decisions. And that is a significant reason why public CIOs leave government service for the private sector.
In the FCW Media Group survey, 23 percent of the 85 CIOs who responded reported that a primary reason they would leave their job would be differences with strategic direction or to take a private-sector job for greater responsibility and influence.
The survey also found that federal CIOs rank resource planning and investment as their second highest priority, after information security. Strategic IT planning ranks third.
"CIOs are doing quite well in the private sector, not only in terms of compensation and benefits but also in terms of the level of responsibility and accountability they're given to be true partners in the business of the organization for which they work," said Ron Miller, a former CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and now a senior principal at SRA International's homeland security program.
For many government CIOs, attempts to move into a more influential role have been frustrating. The primary tool of public CIOs "is a big stop sign -- the ability to say no," said Mayi Canales, a former Treasury Department CIO and now chief executive officer of M Squared Strategies, a consulting firm. But government CIOs often lack the authority to say how they would do things differently.
That is because many senior agency executives do not yet acknowledge or understand CIOs' strategic role, Miller said. He said senior executives should always include the CIO when making strategic decisions about improving their agencies' effectiveness and efficiency.
"The government is evolving in that direction, but there's still room for improvement," he added. "The private sector has a better understanding of how to utilize CIOs to gain advantage in the Information Age."
Others agree that agencies could address the high turnover rate by treating CIOs as more than service-delivery officials who enact executives' strategic decisions. "World-class organizations understand that. They've learned it," said Steve Cooper, CIO at the American Red Cross and former Homeland Security Department CIO. "Those of us who have been CIOs have learned it, and we've gotten better at what we do."
Government agencies are still working on that lesson, Cooper said. "Most federal agencies still view the CIO as being responsible for IT infrastructure, IT order-taking, and don't yet fully understand the potential value" of IT, he said.
But to say that federal agencies are less mature in their understanding of the CIO's role is not a criticism, he added. "It hasn't been that long that the federal government has had a position titled" CIO, Cooper said. "If you figure that's less than 10 years, that's not a lot of time."
Others agree that accepting the broader contributions that CIOs can make could help reduce the high turnover. "People come to public service not just for a paycheck but for the impact they can have," said Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a think tank focused on government accountability. CIOs shouldn't simply be technology managers, he said.
At the request of lawmakers, Government Accountability Office auditors have begun reviewing federal laws pertaining to CIOs. Their review will help congressional leaders decide whether they need to amend those laws to make CIOs more effective.
GAO's auditors have found, for example, that many federal agencies are violating the Clinger-Cohen Act, which requires every agency to have a CIO who reports directly to the agency's top leader. But little consensus exists for enforcing that provision more vigorously or amending the law to reflect current practice.
Only 50 percent of the CIOs in the FCW Media Group survey said they report directly to their agency's top official. Another 21 percent report to a deputy agency leader. The rest report to a senior administrator or management executive.
Some former CIOs say that reporting directly to agencies' top officials is not all that important. But others say that relationship is crucial to a CIO's effectiveness and should not depend on the personalities of officials who occupy those positions. "That was what the law was taking into account," Miller said.
Enforcing Clinger-Cohen is crucial if only because reporting relationships are more important in government than they are in the private sector, Cooper added. When a company needs to solve a problem, for example, people don't worry about whether someone is a high-level General Schedule employee or a Senior Executive Service official.
Such concern "is way overblown in the federal government," he said. "It gets in the way of solving problems."
Nevertheless, in a culture in which reporting relationships are important, the CIO should report directly to the Cabinet secretary or top agency official, Cooper said. In reinforcing that statutory relationship, the Office of Management and Budget has been helpful but not completely effective, he added.
"I don't think OMB has the authority to tell a Cabinet secretary, 'You have to [do] this,'" Cooper said, adding that OMB officials do have ways to influence agencies' compliance with Clinger-Cohen.
"They can tie up budgets," he said. "They can easily include budget pass-back language that says, 'We strongly recommend that you do this, otherwise your money may disappear.'" To its credit, OMB has used its influence, he added.
To what extent Congress might change laws to enhance federal CIOs' effectiveness remains unclear. "We'll look at what's going on in the private sector, too, and take all of it into consideration when we revisit these laws on the books," said David Powner, director of IT management issues at GAO.
Besides changes in the law, federal CIOs can try to influence mission-critical decisions through informal collaboration, Powner said. But according to a GAO survey of federal CIOs in 2004, many CIOs said communicating and collaborating with other chiefs -- chief financial officers, chief acquisition officers and chief human capital officers -- are among their biggest challenges.
That is a problem, too, Miller said. "There needs to be a level of coordination between all of those individuals because everything they do relates," he said.
Many demands, limited authority
In the FCW Media Group survey, public CIOs listed other challenges that help explain their brief tenure in office. Federal CIOs rank the political environment
and the complexity of the issues as their top challenges.
However, federal and other public CIOs will always have to deal with those difficulties, even as their roles evolve, Canales said.
"You have the OMB requirements, the legislative requirements, business requirements, the Hill requirements," she said. "You have the private sector where everybody is trying to tell you that their solution is the best. You also have internal agency politics."
Federal CIOs have almost none of the control that corporate CIOs enjoy, Canales added. "CIOs in the private sector have the luxury of knowing what their budget is going to be and knowing [that] if they make a decision it will be implemented," she said.
A public CIO's job is a bit more complicated, Canales said. "Despite the fact you get your funding approved and you have performance metrics that make business sense and you have a contract in place, that doesn't mean life is going to go as planned," she said.
Public CIOs must constantly adapt and revamp, she added. "In the world of IT, you expect that from the technology," she said. "But what changes in government is not simply the IT. It's all the other things."
Cooper agreed that politics and complexity -- the sheer size and scope of many agencies -- are persistent challenges for public CIOs. One of the most exacting aspects of any federal CIO's job is compliance "with all rules, regulations, laws, statutes, executive orders, congressional orders, OMB dictates -- you name it," he said.
Keeping IT employees happy and productive is another top priority and a demanding one, said Brad Hartig, CIO of Scottsdale, Ariz.
"The technology side has its challenges, but so does the people side -- keeping everybody motivated," he said.
Agencies should convince CIOs to stay to complete long-term projects, especially now, Powner said. Asked whether he was concerned about CIO turnover, Powner said public agencies benefit by having leaders manage the significant changes in information security, enterprise architecture and investment management that are occurring throughout government.
"Clearly, that turnover could affect the continuity of projects," he added.
Lunn is research director for FCW Media Group, which owns Federal Computer Week.