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.

Cyber. Covered.

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


Reader comments

Wed, May 14, 2014 Ron Batdorf Hampton Roads Virginia

My experience with CIO offices is that they are not effective and tend to work on rules for IT uses and less on the actually uses of IT within the organization. We haven't always had CIO's within organizations and this could be the real problem; why do we have them now? As complexity entered the organization with IT systems; some folks said; let's build another overall function within the corporation and separate IT from the rest of the components of the organization so that the IT is under a head shed leader of IT but without the Enterprise Architecture in place for this to be more centralized we then to draft rules and processes for information flow that is either so generic that it doesn’t mean anything for the overall results of the organization or the CIO suggests specific solutions of IT that create stovepipes as other compartments cannot use the new IT systems and maintains their own legacy stuff which then caused configuration management issues which complicated IT even more. So maybe we need to rethink the role and purpose of the CIO and how they fit within the organization. One thing I know for sure is that they better know the Enterprise Architecture and Knowledge Management Plan before they assume the role. The problem is most CIO don’t know much about these areas and there seems to be a lack of other leaders within the organizations that understand the holistic view of all the working functions of the organization.

Tue, Apr 29, 2014 Bill Sweeney United States

Here is the original comment "I wouldn't necessarily argue that the CIO at Commerce should control every single dollar of IT spending," he said. "We have satellites up in space doing Earth observations, and my office certainly doesn't have expertise in satellites. If you're talking about budget control, focus it more on the commodities because that's what is common to most organizations and harder for organizations to argue is unique to them. This is the classic confusion between responsibility and accountability The agency is responsible for the satellite program. The CIO is accountable for the effective and efficient execution of the program. The challenge for the CIO is that most "tech programs" involve a lot more than tech. The CIO must be able to raise issues with the program resulting from tech or non-tech and hold the department responsible for resolving the issues. The authority for the CIO to do so must come from the top. Easier said than done if the roles and responsibilities in government are not clear. Perhaps Clinger-Cohen should be revisited to make those responsibilities clear and set forth the implicatins for non-compliance.

Mon, Apr 28, 2014

As a former federal Dept. CIO, I'm sure Mr. Balutis is keenly aware of the challenges of that role. One challenge is that the CIO's scope is simply too broad and too diverse, especially in the larger federal Departments. Having also worked in federal CIO offices for many years, I've seen how well the Dept-level IT office develops and supports mission systems for the bureaus -- which is to say, usually not very well. In a well run organization, the mission systems really are better delivered by the bureaus, operating divisions, etc. within a larger Department. These bureaus are the level at which the requirements are understood, the designers have direct access to the users, and the budgets for mission systems are usually appropriated at this level. These are facts that are hard to change. No matter how much we may want to centralize authority in a Department-level CIO, there will always be things that are better handled at the level that's closer to the reality of daily mission operations. Current thinking at many federal Agencies is for Dept-level IT to provide platforms and infrastructure that can be used by those who develop the mission systems at the bureau level. This is opening up a longer conversation, but in summary, the Department can provide the technical backend (and security) for its bureaus to develop their own apps/custom solutions and manage their own information. Perhaps in a few years, things will have changed again and the pendulum will swing back the other way, but this seems to be where things are right now.

Mon, Apr 28, 2014

I agree there should not be CIO's. The work force is now IT savy enough, to know what's out there and much more able to spend their money wisely on what they need to get their core mission accomplished. Having some CIO trying to "control" IT spending misses the point. Agencies know how best to spend their IT dollars without the need for a CIO.

Mon, Apr 28, 2014

The idea information technology can be transformative is a bit of a misnomer. In any noteworthy example transformative technologies are disruptive. In most American Corporations the objective is sustainment the only purpose of technology is to increases productivity by applying net present value analysis. Soon most of these companies will be more like trust fund babies, and then comes the disruption. In any event, the synonyms catharsis or life-changing don’t just come to mind they are essential after-the-fact adjectives of the postmortem. Such is the influence of emergence as if many understand the meaning of our experience even years after the fact. So to answer your question: Does anyone want to be a CIO? Not anyone worth promoting or hiring. For the right person will never fit the bill. A better question is: why does FCW pitch a lot of softballs? Is FCW trying to placate their advertisers by not disrupting the status quo, (with just a modicum of discord to throw the dogs off)? No wonder the reporting on this subject is historically weak. No worries it’s all tulipomania.

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