The likely decline of the CIO

stylized professionals

For a long time, I have listened to the debate on why the ADP chief, the director of information systems, the head of information resource management and now the CIO should have a place at the table. The Brooks Act spoke to the ADP era, and the Clinger-Cohen Act modernized the Management 101 text to include the term "CIO." Now the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act wants a bigger, better, politically appointed CIO. How agencies will improve results by replacing a career CIO with one destined to last 27 months is baffling. Put all the IT money under one person and problem solved. Wrong. Budget not executed, claims processing times increase, and service delivery measures worsen. Knowing whom to blame is a puzzle. Even as an IT veteran, I have my doubts.

I don't think IT belongs in the chief financial officer's shop or in the management shop or in the chief of staff's shop. But I also don't think CIOs need, deserve or work effectively in their own empires. IT leaders' budget and function should be close enough to the mission that they and the mission leaders are rewarded or fired based on the impact IT has on service delivery and mission accomplishment.

It is best to remember that mission performance is a team sport. Clear lines of authority are important, with those authorities placed close to the operation.

Why is this debate so intense and long lasting? It's mainly because the legislative and executive branches have very different views on how to run mission organizations. Capitol Hill is made up of people with a very different view of how to run government programs from the people who actually execute them. Congress is still composed largely of older male lawyers who never made anything. Yes, some of them are young, some of them are female, and some of them actually have made something that would count toward the gross domestic product. But most have not.

As a result, this group believes that operations run best if there is a lot of control and only one neck to choke. Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in when it comes to IT. Some mistakes will be made, and it's the program leaders who should be choked, not some designated noose-wearer known as the CIO.

It is best to remember that mission performance is a team sport. Clear lines of authority are important, with those authorities placed close to the operation. On a tour of Normandy a few years ago, I was told that the German army was hamstrung for days during the D-Day invasion because Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was on leave in Germany for his wife's birthday and the local commanders did not have the authority to deploy the panzer divisions.

Our operational leaders in agencies need to be able to make decisions with agency missions in mind. I am not arguing that all operations and resources should be decentralized. But we should standardize and centralize only those activities and functions that are in the enterprise's interest and put the rest nearer to the problem and the mission-delivery points.

FITARA is doomed to failure because it is attacking symptoms, not root causes. The legislation addresses a poorly defined problem with solutions that deal only with reporting lines and accountability. FITARA is more about activity than progress.

We need to understand that you can lead from the top, but the desire to manage from the top is impossible. Our drive to hang someone every time a mistake is made leads to an environment in which no one wants to be responsible and failure is even more insidious and inevitable.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Mon, Aug 12, 2013

Ya know what, not many CIOs, at any level, have much of a chance in this world. In Government they start behind the 8-ball because they are seen as an expensive (people and toys) group who generally aren't there doing the direct mission of the agency. So the server guy in forestry doesn't feed trees, he runs some email server that's never fast enough. Make the things you want the IT folks to do the "mission" of the secretary that owns that agency, and you'll see things change, but intil then, CIOs are doomed. And the agency's top CIO is usually a political appointee, so they usually don't know the difference between a PC and an iPad, but they want an iPad because their kid says "they're awesome Daddy!" So I feel a little bad for them, but most of the time I don't because they're not willing to take their fight to the press (kind of like here) and make folks decide what they want, awesome systems or saved dollars, but you can't have both (unless you're a political appointee who will be out of the door in 36 months)..

Mon, Jul 29, 2013

The contention by some of the commenters here that the CIO's office is some kind of hotbed of innovation is laughable. CIO offices are compliance machines who are more worried about agency scoring and performance measures than real innovation and mission support. With the possible exception of a few enterprise services, they are too far removed from mission performance. One reason is that many Federal CIOs that I've met are technology illiterate and are completely of understanding advanced techology or how it supports the mission. Political appointees would be even more obsessed with oversight, compliance and managing the "appearance" of the White House administraton's IT initiatives relative to Congressional oversight. To the extent that CIOs try to get involved in mission performance, it usually results only in interference and non-value added second guessing. Let the CIO manage commodity IT, generic back-office IT admin, enterprise services, etc. But leave the heavy lifting of direct support to the agency's mission and/or the warfighter (in DoD) to the mission organizations.

Mon, Jul 29, 2013 Fed Watch

It really doesn't matter who is in these CIO jobs, and whether they are career or politically appointed. ManyFederal CIOs go around town speaking at every conference they can get to, and are primarily working on their own resume for enhanced post-Federal opportunities.

Mon, Jul 29, 2013 oldcio

This just another example of an executive that doesn't understand technology and doesn't want to learn. It's amazing how none of the enterprises could have succeeded without advances in technology the CIOs introduce and implement, but these executives not only refuse to give the CIO any credit for it, but insist on claiming they are unneeded. Amazing!

Mon, Jul 29, 2013 Lt Gen Mike Basla Pentagon

- CIOs must not impinge upon innovation. In fact the opposite is true. CIOs must encourage and leverage innovation for the success of the organizations they support.

- CIOs do not work for themselves of for their sake but rather for all mission area owners to enhance their opportunity for mission effectiveness and organizational efficiences

- If CIOs are not collaborating and partnering with all mission area owners then the CIO is irrelevant; risks/rewards must be shared so all have skin in the game

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