Does anyone want to be a CIO?

diagram of work team

Years ago, one of the major industry analyst firms spoke about the evolution of the CIO role at an organization and described that evolution in four phases.

First came the CIO as the head of information resources management (IRM), where he or she was responsible for the computer center and backroom IT operations. The second was the CIO as a direct report to the chief financial officer because it was the latter who would first recognize the potential of IT to reduce staffing and save money. Third was the CIO as a peer to the CFO -- and to other management and administrative CXOs -- because senior managers saw the value of IT to the enterprise.

And, finally, in the fourth and last stage, the CIO was the executive guiding organizational transformation because the CEO saw how technology might change the way the firm or the agency did business. In 2008 and 2009, the Obama administration spoke about that transformative power -- how technology might change the way the government and the country delivered transportation, education, health care and so on.

When I left public service several years ago, the government seemed to be solidly rooted in the third stage. CIOs at Commerce, Treasury, Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Social Security Administration and other agencies had emerged from reporting to the CFO or the assistant secretary for management and were direct reports to the secretary or deputy secretary. Under the leadership of first Mark Forman and then Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget and the CIO Council were driving a series of initiatives (such as the Quicksilver project and e-government portfolio) that were intended to change not only the way government conducted its internal business (e.g., payroll, personnel, procurement, etc.), but also the way it delivered services to citizens, the business community, and to state and local governments and the educational community. The beachfront had been secured, and the breakthrough was imminent.

So what the heck happened? At an April 17 event sponsored by AFFIRM (how ironic, the Association for Federal "Information Resources Management"), a panel of federal IT veterans came together to discuss the role of the CIO -- 18 years after the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act, which created the CIO position across government. One of the panel members took issue with the House-passed Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, which would give department/agency-level CIOs clear authority over all IT budgets and spending. He noted a distinction between "commodity IT" -- such as email, data centers and cloud computing -- and "mission IT," where the responsibility, he stated, rested squarely with a component agency.

So let me understand this: Say I was the CIO at a government agency, perhaps the Commerce Department (which I was). So I should not worry about the habitually over-budget and behind-schedule weather observation satellite program? I shouldn't concern myself with the Census Bureau's plans for the 2020 decennial census, the largest government mobilization short of war? I shouldn't concern myself with trade or export systems, the real heart of the Commerce secretary's focus? Instead of dealing with the multi-year, billion-dollar enterprise systems that draw interest and attention from Congress and the White House, I should focus on email, data centers and maybe the secretary's problems with his BlackBerry?

If that is the case, I should also forsake my title and mandate as the agency CIO. And I should be happy to be the director of IRM. What progress we have made in the decade I've been gone!

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.


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