The evolving role of the federal CIO

Michael Hettinger

Given the growing importance of data, cybersecurity, cloud computing, mobile communications and more, the CIO has taken a more prominent role in nearly all businesses. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for government, where an increasingly crowded management structure often limits the CIO’s influence.

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 established a CIO at each federal agency with the intent of giving that person access to the agency secretary and enough internal “juice” to drive effective IT management throughout the agency. Some 17 years later, it is clear there is a long way to go to fulfill that original intent.

The implementation of the act has been inconsistent at best, with CIOs’ successes and failures often more dependent on their personalities than on a structure that supports their access and influence. When the Government Accountability Office interviewed 30 CIOs at major agencies in 2011, only 56 percent said they had direct access to the agency secretary or administrator, down from 70 percent in 2004. Combine that downward trend with the proliferation of other chiefs and it’s easy to see that CIOs are struggling in a crowded management environment.

Federal CIOs are still in many cases viewed as technologists or IT geeks when they should be seen as strategic business partners to the program or agency mission, as Clinger-Cohen intended. How can we change this?

Congress should start by redefining the role of the CIO. The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act begins to address that issue by giving CIOs expanded authority over IT purchases and making the CIOs at the 16 largest agencies (minus the Defense Department) presidential appointees. It also seeks to address the structural problem described above by ensuring that the CIOs at those 16 agencies have direct access to the agency’s top leader.

Federal CIOs are still in many cases viewed as technologists or IT geeks when they should be seen as strategic business partners.

As FITARA moves forward, Congress should expand it to include DOD — after all, it accounts for 50 percent of all IT spending — and all agencies under the Chief Financial Officers Act, which are the 24 largest agencies. The legislation must also make sure agency leaders understand that having the CIO report directly to the secretary is a requirement, not an option. That will require a cultural change at some agencies, but it is essential if we are to truly empower the CIO.

There is precedent for this important structural requirement. In 2003, as staff director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s management subcommittee, I drafted legislation known as the DHS Financial Accountability Act to empower the Department of Homeland Security’s CFO. At the time, the CFO was required by agency policy to report to the undersecretary for management, in violation of the statutory provisions of the CFO Act requiring direct access to the secretary.

Our argument was simple: If we expected the CFO at DHS to play a major role in shaping the agency’s financial future, that person needed access to the top. We recognized that the only way to ensure that this would happen was to put it in statute. The same argument now holds true for federal CIOs.

If we want and expect CIOs in government to be strategic business partners in achieving the mission, we have to give them access to the agency head and put them in a position to succeed. It is clear that agencies are not going to do this on their own, so it is essential that Congress require it in statute. The move would do what most businesses in the country already do: recognize the critical value of information, data and digital commerce by elevating the overall standing of the CIO.

About the Author

Mike Hettinger is senior vice president for public sector at TechAmerica, the public policy and public sector arm of CompTIA. Previously he served as director of the Public Sector Innovation Group at SIIA. Prior to joining SIIA, Hettinger served as executive director overseeing strategic planning in Grant Thornton’s Global Public Sector Practice, where he was responsible for firm-wide strategic business planning, federal marketing, and external relations. Prior to joining Grant Thornton, Hettinger was the staff director of the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability. Hettinger also has an extensive background in public affairs, having served as a public policy counselor at Patton Boggs LLP, where he oversaw large-scale lobbying and public affairs campaigns. Prior to joining Patton Boggs, Hettinger was chief of staff to then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.)

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Reader comments

Sun, May 26, 2013

LOL, for the sake of the "CIO" congress better decide ith they're there to suck up to "the customer" or do all that's right in terms of saving money and making security #1. I can tell you, you can't be a mizer and secuse AND have your non-paying agency "customer" happy. So, a CIO's day is ALWAYS determined by his/her Secretary's last trip to the hill for "whatever"! There's no winning in IT, you make the agancy work, but you aren't the agency. As I've been told, "IT is an expensive and necessary evil, as are their employees."

Mon, May 6, 2013 ESI

My VP in the private sector does this "Kingdom Building" and it's one of the least effective ways of leadership I've ever seen. In fact he is the worst leader I've ever seen. It's sad to hear that this is common in the public sector as well.

Mon, May 6, 2013 IT Nerd type

do you really believe that these folks do not have any clout? If they truely led agencies instead of building kingdoms then your approach would be effective, but as it stands they are simply using the network to find that high paying job and they must have a specific group around them to accomplish the mission. Once the kingdom is in place then they prepare to leave. Just look at VHA

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