The rise of the CIO

Editorial: CIOs struggle to earn clout with agencies' senior management circles and help use IT to support business process change

This month marks the sixth anniversary of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which established the position of chief information officer at federal agencies. It's been a disappointing six years, during which frustration has increased among CIOs as they struggle to earn clout with agencies' senior management circles and help use information technology to support business process change.

But times are changing.

Anthony Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, has given John Gauss, the agency's CIO, IT budget and management control. The reason, Principi said, was because many in the agency were resisting the VA's enterprise architecture plan and the cybersecurity initiatives, which are aimed at plugging holes in VA information systems. Such authority is what one former federal CIO called "a dream" for anyone in that position.

Traditionally, that's where this kind of authority has been — in CIOs' dreams. These responsibilities are exactly what CIOs and their supporters have been calling for since the Clinger-Cohen Act was signed into law Aug. 8, 1996. Without the resources or authority to affect buying or management decisions, CIOs have been caught between a rock and a hard place.

Federal management experts have said what was needed was a commitment from the top — the agency head. Principi stepped up to give his agency's CIO authority and, in doing so, shows other agency secretaries what needs to be done. It is a bold move, and one that is sorely needed.

Principi understands that IT will help transform the VA. He also understands that he must place a lot of the responsibility for reforming the agency in the hands of the CIO. Many agencies should watch for how this management story unfolds. Of course, not all decisions will be the right ones, but giving the CIO the space to succeed or fail on his or her own terms is a good place to start. Principi's decision will likely result in a more effective, streamlined and secure VA.

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