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Accelerating digital transformation: the CIO role and why it's important

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Cybersecurity. Supply chains. Archaic legacy systems. High-risk acquisitions. Outdated infrastructure. The federal government faces significant challenges when it comes to delivering secure information technology operations and mission outcomes.

As the new administration begins to implement its policies, the leadership of the federal chief information officer and agency CIOs will be critical for delivering better business results and building trust with citizens.

The Federal Information Technology and Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), passed in 2014, increasingly brought more visibility to the CIO role and helped achieve considerable savings by eliminating inefficient and duplicative infrastructure and business systems.

Take for example data center optimization: Agencies have reported nearly $5 billion of cost savings on this initiative alone. This past year, agency CIOs have dealt with the federal response to the pandemic, demonstrating tremendous agility in expanding telework and telehealth, and supporting the IT implications of the economic fallout, such as unemployment and stimulus payments.

It's a team sport - building organizational relationships

Building and maintaining organizational relationships is the critical priority for the incoming federal CIO and agency CIOs. Without these relationships, the security and delivery on mission outcomes will not occur with the speed or results desired.

Agency CIOs should:

  • Jointly develop, with department/agency business executives, detailed acquisition plans to replace costly and insecure legacy systems and to deliver on mission objectives
  • Foster a relationship with the chief financial officer to ensure that future budgets address these plans and other IT needs
  • Conduct an IT workforce assessment with the chief human capital officer
  • Internally align the roles of the chief information security officer, chief technology officer, chief data officer and chief acquisition officer to deliver on the agencies' strategic priorities.

The federal CIO should:

  • Support the above four agency CIO efforts with outcome-based Office of Management and Budget policies
  • Better align the federal CIO and agency CIO offices with other government-wide IT organizations across the federal government like the White House's U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and the General Services Administration's Technology Transformation Services and 18F
  • Expand engagement of the CIO Council to include the perspectives of the CHCOs, CFOs, CISOs, CDOs, CAOs, and CTOs. Also include a regular perspective from state-level CIOs to tackle common IT strategic challenges, (e.g., technology modernization; using and building secure systems; and federal-state integration and interoperability)
  • Engage with key congressional committees on upcoming legislation (e.g., comprehensive cybersecurity reform, FITARA 2.0) and the next Congressional IT scorecard.

Take the legacy modernization challenges, for example. In a previous paper on digital transformation, I recommended that the federal CIO require agencies to identify on the IT dashboard their top three legacy systems in need of modernization. Further, the federal CIO should track progress on these legacy system replacements by having a government-wide list of these acquisitions to ensure that there are long-term plans, progress against these plans, and funding to support them.

Successfully modernizing these legacy applications will require CIOs working collaboratively with business leaders and all the chiefs. Each of these executives has a key role in delivering mission outcomes. Similarly, tackling these legacy challenges would greatly benefit from the budgetary support and focus from the federal CIO and the unique technical skill sets that 18F and USDS can provide.

Enhancing these executive relationships and aligning these government-wide organizations and the legislative branch requires the leadership and experience that the federal CIO and the CIO Council bring. It is also important to put in place a federal CIO and agency CIOs who have the background and experience to execute these responsibilities.

About the Author

Dave Powner is the executive director for MITRE's Center for Data-Driven Policy.

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