CIO success: Does the song remain the same?

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The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act is the latest embodiment of federal CIO success factors in the era since the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act. I played an instrumental role in advocating and codifying the federal CIO position into law, and I think it is useful to revisit a CIO "best practices" report I led while at the Government Accountability Office some 15 years ago (when it was still known as the General Accounting Office).

As former GAO executive Jeff Steinhoff used to say, true leading practices are like fine champagne: They should only improve in value as they age.

The report has a great deal of overlap with FITARA and the IT Management Maturity Model developed by ACT-IAC in September 2015. To me, it demonstrates that after some 20 years of having CIO positions in place in the federal government, the song for success remains largely the same: The CIO role must be empowered. It must be positioned within an agency’s governance process. It must lead credible and measurable IT results that improve government programs and services. And it must be properly resourced with skilled employees and adequate budgets.

Sound familiar? FITARA codifies those matters more than the Clinger-Cohen Act did, but both were grounded in the same fundamentals. Importantly, the first principle in the GAO report does not deal with ensuring that the CIO has a seat at the senior executive table. (We called that "positioning the CIO for success," and it came second.) Rather, the report notes that organizations must first come to grips with the critical role that information and technology management plays in mission and business success. It cannot be legislated or made a compliance issue; it must be embedded into the fabric of senior leadership.

The three critical success factors, six principles and various other key characteristics we identified in 2001 as major determinants of CIO success -- see below for the full list -- prompt a sense of déjà vu today. Some of the leading industry CIOs at the time strongly endorsed the practices we outlined in the report. I suspect the same would be true if we took a poll today.

Those practices should remind us of the critical factors affecting FITARA implementation and execution. Scorecards that ignore how agencies are improving IT results tend to miss the boat. For example, FITARA has imposed a larger number of checks and controls to ensure business-side buy-in and mitigate the risks associated with IT project failures. Those additions are well intended, but government technology decisions must now involve diverse players representing program offices and the legal, finance, procurement, compliance and privacy offices.

If that collaborative governance process is not run well, we are back to long project timelines and "fuzzy" IT outcomes.

To avoid such traps and snares, CIOs must cohesively bring their senior IT leadership teams to the enterprise management and governance decision-making table. And those CIOs must be well prepared and have stellar track records.

We will change administrations in a little less than a year. New CIOs and newly appointed political heads of agencies will be part of that transition. It would be prudent for transition teams to review GAO’s 2001 "Maximizing the Success of Chief Information Officers" report and push agency heads and CIO/IT leadership teams to embrace the report’s guidelines as they implement FITARA.

Best practices from GAO's 2001 report,
"Maximizing the Success of Chief Information Officers"

Critical Success Factor Key Principles Key Characteristics
Align Information Management Leadership for Value Creation Recognize the role of information management in creating value
  • Information management organizational functions and processes are incorporated into the overall business process
  • Mechanisms and structures are adopted that facilitate an understanding of information management and its impact on the organization's overall strategic direction
Position the CIO for success
  • The CIO model is consistent with organizational and business needs
  • The roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities of the CIO position are clearly defined and the CIO has the right technical and management skills to meet business needs
  •  The CIO is a full participant of the executive management team
Promote Organizational Credibility Ensure the credibility of the CIO organization
  • The CIO has a legitimate and influential role in leading top managers to apply information management to meet business objectives
  • The CIO has the commitment of line management and its cooperation and trust in carrying out projects and initiatives
  • The CIO accomplishes quick, high-impact, and visible successes in balance with longer term strategies
  • The CIO learns from and partners with successful leaders in the external information management community
Measure success and demonstrate results
  • Managers engage both their internal and external partners and customers when defining measures
  • Management at all levels ensures that technical measures are balanced with business measures
  • Managers continually work at establishing active feedback between performance measures and businesses
Execute CIO Responsibilities Organize information resources to meet business needs
  • The CIO organization has a clear understanding of its responsibilities in meeting business needs
  • The extent of decentralization of information management resources and decision-making is driven by business needs
  • The structure of the CIO organization is flexible enough to adapt to changing business needs
  • Outsourcing decisions are made based on business requirements and the CIO organization's human capital strategy
  • The CIO organization executes its responsibilities reliably and efficiently
Develop information management human capital
  • The CIO organization identifies the skills necessary to effectively implement information management in line with business needs
  • The CIO organization develops innovative ways to attract and retain talent
  • The CIO organization provides training, tools, and methods that allow skilled IT professionals to use in performing their duties

About the Author

Dave McClure is chief strategist at Veris Group.


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