Editorial: A new day for CIOs

Change is in the air in the federal information technology community.

Many people involved in federal IT probably breathed a sigh of relief when, a week before the election, a representative of Barack Obama’s campaign said chief information officers should be career employees, not political appointees.

This approach would add a measure of stability to IT operations. Some people believe politically appointed CIOs have more clout with agency leaders, but they are often at a disadvantage when it comes to developing IT policies and strategies and getting buy-in from agency staff members.

Career executives usually have a more nuanced understanding of key issues and a working familiarity with their agencies’ people and processes. And they are generally viewed as more serious stakeholders because they are more likely to stick around long enough to deal with the consequences of their decisions.

However, there is a drawback. Organizations that always look for leaders inside their ranks run the risk of stagnation. People who have worked together for a long time often end up thinking alike, basing their decisions on common experiences and similar assumptions.

Outsiders, if chosen wisely, can bring in new ideas and new ways of thinking. It’s not that they are smarter than in-house staff. It is just that their thinking has not been conditioned by the current environment. Outsiders can be disruptive, but sometimes disruption is just what an agency needs.

Perhaps the Obama administration can split the difference. Rather than setting up a revolving door, the new administration should look for innovative ways to expose their senior officials to the outside world.

For example, the CIO Council sponsors a boot camp, an intensive training seminar for new CIOs and deputy CIOs. Perhaps the new administration could use it as a model to create a mandatory continuing education program for CIOs. In such a program, government officials would spend time with leaders from industry discussing case studies and new developments in IT policy and management strategies.

In any case, if Obama chooses to proceed with career executives as CIOs — and we believe he should — administration officials need to commit to providing them with access to all the expertise and resources they need to succeed. 

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