CIO's changing role to bring new power

Sources say CIOs must have technology background

CIOs will get a new mission under the Office of Management Budget’s IT management reform plan unveiled earlier this month. Within the next six months, the Obama administration plans to shift the responsibility of agency CIOs from policy-making to portfolio management, thereby strengthening government accountability and efficiency. 

To make the shift successful, however, observers said the federal government must ensure CIOs are considered part of an agency’s leadership team and are able to promote the business value of IT projects, harking back to longstanding debate about the value of the CIO position.

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Specifically, the plan indicates that agency CIOs will be responsible for continuously identifying unmet needs to be addressed by new projects, terminating or turning around poorly performing projects and retiring IT investments which no longer meet the needs of the agency.

The reform report calls for federal agencies overall to turn around or terminate at least one-third of poorly performing projects within the next 18 months.

Agency CIOs will also lead TechStat sessions – an evidence-based review of IT projects – within their departments. (For more information on TechStat, click here.)

The Federal CIO Council will fulfill a similar management role as agency CIOs, but at a cross-agency level. The council will periodically review the highest priority TechStat findings from agency CIOs in order to share best practices and common failures, according to the plan.

Because of the enormous pressure to increase the value of the government’s IT investments, CIOs can’t be confined to dealing with policy, said Rick Webb, a former CIO for the state of North Carolina.

Webb, who is now the chief technology officer of Accenture’s Canada and U.S. state and local government practice, added that the role of CIOs is not just about technology anymore. “It’s really about a people process, government and leadership,” he said. “CIOs, if they are positioned appropriately in the organization, generally have one foot in the area of business and one foot in technology.”

Mark Forman, the federal government’s first CIO, expressed a similar perspective. “A CIO has to understand the business processes of their agency,” he said. “The underlying issue here is how do you apply technology to improve performance in a way that people who perform will adopt it. If you can’t address that gap, [you’re] going to have a failed project no matter which technology you have.”

Forman, who now leads KPMG’s federal performance and technology advisory services practice, said the federal government must build a cadre of CIOs who can communicate to non-IT people the value of an IT project that will transform the way the agency does business.

“CIOs increasingly need to be able to interpret technology trends and turn them into meaningful opportunities,” Forman added. 

And if the administration is serious about granting CIOs greater oversight authority, it must ensure that these officials are considered part of their agency’s leadership, sources said.

Several sources suggested that giving CIOs more power is long overdue.

“In some agencies, the agency CIO has a seat at the executive leadership table,” said Bob Dix, vice president of government affairs and critical infrastructure protection for Juniper Networks. “In the majority of agencies, the CIO role is four or five levels down." 

Dix said an important element of the IT reform plan should be empowering and elevating the CIO role in leadership teams across Cabinet agencies – something that can’t be achieved without buy-in from agency leadership. He noted that CIOs were meant to have such authority under the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

Forman added that CIOs must be included in the agency’s budget discussions, along with the agency’s chief financial officer, if they are to oversee IT investments.

Agency CIOs should also have a technology background so they can effectively manage IT projects. In the past, CIO positions have been populated by political appointees who were not well-versed in IT, according to sources.

To ensure CIOs can fulfill their job duties, the qualifications of a CIO should be better defined, Dix said. This would ensure agency CIOs and the Federal CIO Council are more productive and efficient, he added.

The length of a CIO’s term was another point of concern for some. The average time a federal CIO stays in the office is 18 months to two years, which prevents continuity of leadership, Dix said. If CIOs are now going to be determining the future of federal IT projects, they should remain in their positions for longer to see projects to fruition, Dix and others suggested. 

As for the Federal CIO Council, Forman said he thinks that group’s biggest challenge under the new reform plan will be deciding when to terminate an IT project. There are many legacy applications that are past their useful life, Forman explained, but there is no guidance on when it is appropriate to end those projects. In the face of technology advances, the council must determine a governmentwide process for terminating an IT program, he said.


About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.


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