Where CIOs boot up
Sessions prepare new IT managers for their three-pronged role as technologists, strategists and salesmen
When Education Department deputy CIO Brian Burns, three months on the job, walked into a meeting with agency senior managers, he already knew the tack he needed to take in explaining how to solve security and privacy concerns.
He didn’t try to describe the benefits of two-factor authentication or say anything about data warehouses. Instead, he went back to one of many lessons learned from his stint at boot camp—CIO Boot Camp, that is.
Burns kept the bits and bytes in the server room and brought the business needs to the boardroom. At this early December meeting, nearly a month after the CIO’s version of Parris Island ended, he described what data they were trying to protect and what needs to be done to protect it, and he did it in simple, easy to understand terms.
“I focused on the business processes the user follows,” said Burns, who has been deputy CIO since last September. “There was interest and support of what we need to do from the senior managers and we are still working toward it.”
Burns’ ability to keep senior executives’ eyes from glazing over when he talks about enterprise architecture, security and privacy are among the skills he and other CIOs need to realize in order to be successful. And for new CIOs and deputy CIOs, especially, the breadth of these skills can be overwhelming and unfamiliar. Federal IT managers must be one part visionary, one part technologist and one part salesman to affect their agency’s mission and ensure funding.
For Burns, maybe it was something Richard Burk, the Office of Management and Budget’s chief architect, said: “Enterprise architecture may have started as an IT thing, but it became clear that it helps gets business done.” Or maybe it was something one of the other panelists said during the two-day Boot Camp, sponsored by the federal CIO Council. No matter what phrase or idea stuck in Burns’ head, he accomplished one of the main goals of the education sessions: Recognize the skills of a successful agency IT manager.
“The goal of the boot camp is not to tell you how to do your job, but for you to ask questions of people who had jobs like yours so you can understand what is going on and address concerns,” said Fred Thompson, the Council for Excellence in Government’s vice president for management and technology, in kicking off the boot camp.
CEG, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at improving the effectiveness of government, hosted and ran the boot camp at its Washington offices.
Government Computer News received permission to sit in on both days of the boot camp under the arrangement of not identifying participants unless they agreed to it.
“The boot camp ensures a certain level of knowledge” among CIOs, said Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget’s administrator for IT and e-government, and director of the CIO Council. “It levels [the environment] so people have a basic understanding of all responsibilities CIOs have to do.”
This was the third time the CIO Council, through CEG, held the education sessions, relying on former federal, state and local government CIOs and political appointees—known as sages—as well as current career and political federal and Hill experts.
The CIO Council pays about $60,000 a year for the sessions, and attendees go for free. It is open only to CIOs, deputy CIOs and chief technology officers, who have been in their positions for less than a year. OMB is looking into offering the boot camp more than once a year, but that depends on a number of things, the most important of which is having the budget to pay for it, Evans said.
CEG has modified the program each year, adding the theme of working with human resources, finance and acquisition managers, as well as workforce and electronic records management issues, Thompson said.
Instead of push-ups, five-mile runs in the rain and lots of “sir, yes sirs,” this boot camp included nine sessions with more than 30 current and former IT experts on subjects ranging from EA to strategic planning and IT governance to security and privacy to a discussion with OMB officials about the President’s Management Agenda.
And while the sages were a far cry from drill instructors yelling in the new CIO’s face, the former and current experts did not sugarcoat the expectations and challenges of the job.
National Science Foundation CIO and best practices committee co-chairman George Strawn set the tone when he entered the room, asking, “Do you know what CIO stands for?” Before anyone could speak up, he answered, “Career Is Over.”
A big smile crossed Strawn’s face, easing the tension he created.
“I don’t believe your career is over, but I do believe things are changing,” he said.
That is what the boot camp tries to address: the changing environment of the CIO, while providing instruction on the how-to aspects of the job and an update on what agencies should expect from OMB and the Hill.
“It was a lot of reinforcement for me,” said Christine Liu, Small Business Administration CIO. “I was exposed to those areas as an acting deputy CIO at the State Department, but the boot camp helped articulate all of my responsibilities.”
And those mandated responsibilities seem never-ending. According to a CIO road map developed for the Council for Excellence in Government by Touch-stone/SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., CIOs have 12 key pieces of legislation that govern their work and a cycle of 34 core processes and mandated reports they must submit to OMB.
On top of that, CIOs must influence their agency’s budget, oversee IT projects, deal with workforce issues and ensure their agency is meeting the e-government goals of the PMA.
Evans called the roadmap, which started at the Labor Department, the most useful piece of information CIOs receive from the boot camp.
“Understanding the scope of my job was key for me,” Education Department CIO Bill Vajda said. “The boot camp provided me a wide variety of mission perspectives. It also was good to talk to my peers in an informal way.”
Mark Forman, a former OMB administrator for e-government and IT and current executive at KPMG LLC of New York, and Bruce McConnell, a former head of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and president of McConnell International of Washington, walked CIOs through the road map, offering specific insights about nearly every one of the 34 processes.
“The road map is a bit scary,” McConnell said. “It is a bit of a stretch to get high-level mission goals to match with CIO responsibilities.”
Vajda said he will share the CIO road map with other Education managers to “give them a sense of what our portfolio looks like.”
“It would be nice to line up the CIO roadmap with a CFO road map and see what tensions are created and where the crunch points are,” he said.
While the road map was a tangible take-away, participants said they benefited just as much from the collective knowledge of the sages and other speakers.
“It is hard to get members of Congress’ attention on IT,” a House Appropriations Committee staff member told the audience on the final day, somewhat stating the obvious, but at the same time offering an honest view from the Hill.
“Working with the appropriations committee is different than working with any other committee. We are a different breed.”
Burk, the OMB chief architect, challenged the CIOs and deputy CIOs to figure out their role as soon as possible: “Will you respond to business needs with IT or be a strategic player?”
“If you see yourself primarily responding to business needs with IT, then you have a limited role,” he said. “Clinger-Cohen called for a much broader role than that.”
Roger Baker, the former Commerce CIO and current executive with General Dynamics Corp., detailed four areas of power for CIOs:
- Personal—the people you work with
- Referential—the people you report to
- Organizational authority—the influence you have across your agency
- Legislative—the least important of the four because you have the least amount of control over it.
“If you don’t have personal and referential power, you will not go very far,” he said.
Baker also warned participants to be careful about how they work with OMB. He emphasized the ability to work with them and the agency’s inspector general, but they have to understand all the potential results.
“OMB doesn’t understand the surgical strike,” he said. “If they go after something, they go all the way.”
Sometimes the conversations got specific. One participant asked if voice mail messages will become permanent records when phone systems move to IP technology.
Reynolds Cahoon, a former CIO at the National Archives and Records Administration and now an executive at Lockheed Martin Corp., said CIOs need to use their records schedule to determine what is a record and what is not. “A lot of digital records are not worth keeping forever,” he said.
But most of the conversations stayed at a high level.
An OMB budget examiner highlighted the need for CIOs and their staffs to have an ongoing, informal relationship with OMB.
“We can be your advocate, someone to defend your programs,” the examiner said. “We want to have the same priorities as you do. [But] you have to be honest, forthcoming and clear about what is going on with your programs.”
Alan Balutis, a former Commerce deputy CIO and current executive with Cisco Systems Inc., also offered some pointed advice about agency budgets.
“Be responsive to OMB requests when it comes to the budget. The more people know about your budget, the better it is,” he said.
He also told CIOs to make sure they have support for programs across the agency before discussing them with OMB, and then develop advocates within OMB, who could help explain the benefits with the budget examiners.
“The message from the sessions was that business relationships, rather than technology approval processes, are critically important to CIOs,” CEG’s Thompson said. “It is about how they connect to their business partners.”
The session on working with Congress was one of the most popular sessions of the boot camp, Thompson said. Among the reasons were the tips the staff member provided (see sidebar, right), and the frank exchange between Evans and the staff member.
One participant asked the staff member’s take on e-government and the Lines of Business Consolidation efforts, and the use of different funding approaches.
The staff member simply said that agencies should not “reallocate funding for e-government. It is against the law. Don’t do it. Don’t pass the hat.”
Evans responded quickly by saying that she agreed that reallocating funds is against the law, and that is not what OMB has been asking agencies to do. “That is what gets us in trouble with the appropriators.”
“One of the big discussions we’ve acknowledged is the fact that some of the agencies have done an across-the-board cut to participate in a certain initiative They will go across the accounts and [take money for the project],” Evans said. “OMB has a responsibility to manage these things and see what exact account are agencies taking the money from. There is a lot of transparency to that and there was a lot of validity within certain agencies, [but] not across the board.
The fact that dollars are being appropriated for one activity and the entity in that department is not participating in that service” is a problem.
Evans continued, saying that OMB gave guidance that agencies should take money from program areas to participate in an initiative that is involved in the specific project.
“[S]everal agencies did that,” Evans said. “That is a legitimate appropriations concern, and [appropriations people] go crazy over that, and you should because that is not right.”
The staff member quickly retorted, “Every subcommittee is different, but we have reprogramming requests and in some instances you can transfer money, but we need to be notified.”
The staff member added that agencies can’t augment their appropriations through working capital funds or through the Economy Act. “We want transparency and want to be notified,” the staff member said. “We had a number of instances [with one agency] where they completely abused the Economy Act and their working capital fund. We went crazy when we found that out. You just can’t do that.”
Own your Problems
A common theme throughout almost all of the sessions was that CIOs should take ownership and create governance structures for programs.
Evans said that if CIOs always look to OMB to solve their problems, they will never be looked at as decision-making executives in their agency.
“It is a trust issue and it is up to the CIO to establish that trust,” she said. “OMB can’t order people to like you.”
Jim Flyzik, a former Treasury CIO and now a consultant, added that CIOs need to create a governance structure that lets them co-exist with their counterparts and succeed in meeting the agency’s mission.
Perhaps some of the best advice for new CIOs came from one of the longest-serving ones, Ira Hobbs.
Hobbs, who recently retired as Treasury CIO and had been in government for about 30 years, said, “Don’t commit to anything you can’t do; and whatever you do, it should be about the basics of the organization.”
He added that CIOs should read their business cases, because when agencies submit them to OMB, they are gone.
“We had 64 at Treasury, and I spent 2.5 days reading through them,” he said. “I asked questions about certain aspects that were missed.”
In the end, the boot camp provided CIOs a quick but thorough understanding of their responsibilities and the decisions they must make on how to position their roles.
SBA’s Liu, Education’s Vajda and Burns agreed that the boot camp will make a difference in how they move forward as CIOs—both short term and long term.
“If I hadn’t gone to the boot camp, I could still function as a CIO,” Liu said. “However, the boot camp provided me with additional insights from the former CIOs and current ones, and let me exchange ideas with experts.”