Editorial: What to do with the CMO

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have a clear vision for the role of chief management officers at the Defense Department. Whether DOD officials buy into that vision remains to be seen.

According to the fiscal 2009 Defense Authorization bill, the secretary of each military service would establish an Office of Business Transformation to spearhead DOD’s business transformation initiatives and appoint a CMO to hire the office director and oversee the work.

Clearly, committee members want DOD to bring more management discipline to its efforts to modernize core business systems, and they see CMOs as the way to make that happen. It seems logical: If you need management expertise, bring in a management expert.

However, bringing in CMOs represents more than just additions to the organizational charts. It entails a significant change in the department’s culture — at least it should. CMOs bring an entirely new perspective to government programs, with a heightened focus on planning and processes.

Congress can amend a department’s org chart, but legislation alone won’t change culture. We learned that after the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 established the position of the chief information officer.

Many of the first CIOs found themselves with important-sounding jobs but little influence on their agencies’ direction. DOD CMOs could face a similar fate, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

A handful of early CIOs were able to earn a seat at the table by convincing their bosses that information technology could play a vital role in their agencies’ missions. If the DOD provision becomes law, the CMOs should do the same. They must demonstrate that strong management discipline can directly contribute to the success of the department’s business transformation initiatives.

It might be true, as some argue, that adding another layer of bureaucracy will not improve management at DOD or any other agency. But if the CMO provision becomes law, energies must shift from debating its merits to deciding how to carry it out.

DOD leaders, meanwhile, must give the CMOs the authority and resources they need to be successful.

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