Spires situation raises questions, concerns about CIO authority

DHS CIO Richard Spires

The Department of Homeland Security CIO's extended leave brings new attention to old questions concerning CIOs' budget and purchasing powers.

Department of Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires has not publicly discussed his leave since it was first reported on April 1, and neither have other DHS officials. The rest of the federal IT community, however, is talking plenty -- and voicing concerns about what it might mean for CIOs' authority.

As FCW reported on April 15, Spires' leave -- which DHS officials stated was requested by him -- was at least partly the result of other DHS leaders' objections to further centralizing IT budget authority within the office of the CIO. Such consolidation has been debated since the Clinger-Cohen Act formalized the CIO position in 1996, and is something that legislators, the Obama administration and former CIOs have argued for to varying degrees.

"With budget authority, the CIO controls all the [IT] money and resources and has control over commodity IT buys," said Roger Baker, the former Department of Veterans Affairs CIO who recently joined Agilex. "That is an incredible amount of economy that comes from consolidating those things together under one person."

At VA, Baker had statutory budget authority for the department's IT investments. "It is a night-and-day difference between the VA CIO job and all the other CIO jobs because of that," he told FCW.

Many agencies have resisted such authority for their CIOs, and Clinger-Cohen does not mandate it. But such powers are at the heart of the proposed Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act.

FITARA, sponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), would explicitly give CIOs IT budget authority. The bill was approved unanimously by the House committee in March, and committee staffers are carefully watching what shakes out with Spires.

"Chairman Issa supports enhanced management and budget authority for CIOs and a more robust role for the CIO Council," said a spokesperson for the committee. "Mr. Spires has testified before the oversight committee, and the committee will respond appropriately to information concerning his situation."

When Spires last testified before the committee in February, Issa was even more explicit in his view. "Every agency needs one chief information officer, who's clearly in charge," Issa said. "There has to be a structure including a chain of command and including real authority to spend the money better and be accountable for that money. And ultimately, what budget authority needs and a CIO needs is to stop quickly when that money clearly isn't as well spent as anticipated."

The Obama administration has made similar arguments. A 2011 Office of Management and Budget directive declared that CIOs "shall pool their agency's purchasing power across their entire organization to drive down costs and improve service for commodity IT."

And within DHS, the Office of Inspector General released an audit last year urging the department to grant the CIO centralized control of DHS' IT budget planning process. The OIG also recommended that the CIO's role be expanded to "identify problems in the component IT budgets before they become final." At the time, Deputy Undersecretary for Management Chris Cummiskey said the existing organizational structure gave Spires' office the needed authority already -- an assessment with which the OIG disagreed.

Yet for all the arguments in favor of the authority Spires was reportedly seeking, the status quo can have staunch defenders as well.

"People want to know why people in government don't take more risks. I'd say you just found out," said a former agency CIO who declined to be identified. "Kudos to Richard [Spires] for taking the risk. He knew the downside was there."

Speaking about legislation and the OMB-led directive to enhance CIO budget authority, the former CIO told FCW that Spires' efforts highlight "where the real power rests in management from the agency standpoint."

"You've got DHS management telling OMB, 'I understand you told this CIO to go do these things, but he was crazy enough to actually decide to try to do it,'" the source said.

At some point, said Mark Forman, former administrator of e-government and IT under President George W. Bush and now president of Government Transaction Services, "somebody is going to have to take on that role of transformation agent in agencies," as first described by the Clinger-Cohen Act 17 years ago.

And if it's not the CIO, Forman said, then it will have to be someone else.

"Either you allow the CIO to get involved in the business of the agency, or you have to have somebody else who takes on that transformational role -- the person who understands how to leverage technology for the better mission performance of the agency," said Forman, stressing the importance IT plays in today's government.

Forman said that, historically, many CIOs go into their jobs thinking they have at least tacit budgetary authority and the backing of the agency secretary only to find out that it isn't the case. Better and earlier communication between secretaries and CIO candidates might help alleviate that issue, Forman said, but right now, confusion over the CIO role continues to plague the federal IT community -- and the Spires situation is not helping.

Requests for comment by FCW to DHS Undersecretary for Management Rafael Borras and the DHS OIG's office were not returned by press time, nor were requests to OMB.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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