The evolving role of the CIO

As the job changes, some struggle to climb out of the server room into the boardroom

The Navy recognized early on the strategic role of the CIO as a thought leader rather than someone consumed by the nuts and bolts of technology. In fact, the Navy’s lead IT managers wrote a book in the early 2000s describing an effective CIO and the importance of that person working across the organization.

“Our leaders understood the Clinger-Cohen Act and saw the success in the corporate world,” said Dave Wennergren, former Navy CIO and current deputy CIO and deputy assistant secretary for information management and IT at the Defense Department.

“It was the intent of the secretary of the Navy when he hired Dan Porter as CIO [in September 1998] for him to be a transformation agent. Some CIOs go through an evolutionary process, but in the Navy, the creation of the CIO went hand-in-hand with the ideal role of the CIO as an information leader and not a technologist.”
Few doubt the Navy was ahead of its time.

The Navy’s vision for the CIO is one many agencies have yet to realize, according to current and former CIOs. But the evolution of the CIOs’ role to meet the requirements Clinger-Cohen laid out 10 years ago is happening.

“The way we got out of the gate with the Clinger-Cohen Act wasn’t very effective,” said Paul Brubaker, who helped draft the law when he worked for former Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) and is now CEO of Procentrix Inc. of Reston, Va. “We didn’t see a level of hard pushing in the right direction until Mark [Forman] and Karen [Evans] got [to the Office of Management and Budget].”

Forman, the first administrator for e-government and IT and a former Hill staff member who worked on the law as well, pushed CIOs to think more about the effect they can have on the business of their agencies instead of implementing technology for the sake of technology. Evans, the current OMB administrator for e-government and IT, has expanded the CIOs’ focus and brought them into areas such as human resources and financial management.

“The CIO is not a chief information technology officer, but they need to understand technology,” Evans said at a recent Washington event on the Clinger-Cohen Act sponsored by the Professional Services Council of Arlington, Va. “The CIO has to be able to cut through the technology issues and boil it down to what is the best way to achieve results.”

But many CIOs, according to experts, have yet to force their way into the boardroom—or if they have, their impact is minimal.

Cohen, who co-authored the bill with former congressman William Clinger (R-Pa.), said at the event that CIOs still are not thought of as a strategic visionaries; their power is not respected or understood, and agencies still have trouble measuring the effectiveness of their IT programs.

Dale Meyerrose, CIO of the Office of National Intelligence, said that while Clinger-Cohen established a baseline that has steered the federal conversation about IT for the last 10 years, CIOs still are looked at as the person running the LAN or making sure e-mail works.

“We failed to create mechanisms of enforcement in proper proportions,” he said. “Motivating people to change behavior is not easy. You have to be inclusive, but insistent that decisions can’t be made about IT without all the stakeholders and users involved.”

Gene Dodaro, the Government Accountability Office’s chief operating officer, said the issue for many agencies is execution of Clinger-Cohen’s six specific responsibilities and roles.

“The question is whether CIOs have the authority to act,” he said. “The role of the CIO needs to be supported by building up the human capital aspect of an agency.”

Kent Schneider, a former Army IT official and currently Northrop Grumman IT’s vice president for global business development, agreed with Dodaro that CIOs’ progress depends on whether they are empowered by their agency chiefs.

“Successful CIOs are full members of the management team and allowed to execute on their vision,” he said.

Too often, that vision had revolved around technology and not around the business of the agency. But as technology has evolved, so has the CIO’s place in the agency.
After the year 2000 date-code scare, CIOs started to emerge from the operational role they were sucked into, Brubaker said.

And now, many CIOs have progressed to thinking about how technology can improve their agency’s functions and have delegated the functional areas to the deputy CIOs or chief technology officers, Brubaker added.

Fred Thompson, vice president for management and technology for the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, said CIOs now are asking the right questions to drive the strategic conversation.
CEG runs the CIO Council’s CIO Boot Camp, the E-Government Fellows program and others, and has had to adapt the two-day boot camp to meet the evolving needs of CIOs over the last three years.

“A lot of the job of a CIO now is to collaborate with top agency officials and lead them through the technology,” Thompson said. “The CIO has to look for opportunities to blend functions and deliver them in an integrated way.”

Experts say the role of the CIO must continue to advance. “CIOs must invest personal time into being the strategic thinker,” Wennergren said. “It is imperative to create a learning culture and be effective across boundaries.”

But Wennergren and others also said that CIOs still must understand how technology works and be able to talk about it, whether they are in the server room or boardroom.

“If e-mail isn’t working, it doesn’t matter how strategic you are,” Evans said.

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