CIOs discuss the realities of Clinger-Cohen

Policy experts doubt that amending the act would guarantee CIOs a strategic role.

The Clinger-Cohen Act describes a chief information officer as an adviser to agency senior executives and a developer of sound enterprise architecture.

A decade after the enactment of Clinger-Cohen, the CIO’s role in many agencies still does not match the law’s description, said policy experts at a recent event commemorating the legislation’s 10th anniversary.

But few policy leaders think that Congress could amend the law to give CIOs more executive influence.

Congress cannot legislate to give CIOs more clout at the decision-making table, said David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office. Instead, CIOs have to work to gain the respect of others at the table. “It’s difficult to legislate good management,” he said.

Federal CIOs are successful when they deliver business value to their agencies through the use of IT, Powner said. “Ultimately, CIOs are the ones who build and gain authority through their actions,” he said.

In the early days of the law, many senior information resources management directors and technologists were promoted to fill the new CIO positions in federal agencies.

But senior executives did not treat CIOs as their go-to advisers on IT investments and strategies, said several current and former federal officials who spoke at the event. It is widely viewed as the most significant legislative initiative to focus on government acquisition and IT use.

Unlike many who think CIOs are still underappreciated, Richard Spires, CIO at the Internal Revenue Service, said they play an ever-increasing role in helping their agencies or corporations achieve their strategic goals. Corporate executives in particular recognize the critical impact that IT has on business success, said Spires, who has 24 years of experience in the IT industry. “I believe that view is starting to permeate now in the government,” he said.

During his two years in the federal government, Spires said he has begun to see a difference. Executives are beginning to regard CIOs not simply as leaders of their technology offices but as strategic advisers enabling the business, he said. Treasury Department executives, for example, recognize the strategic importance of IT to their goal of closing the gap between the amount of taxes owed and the amount of taxes paid and of protecting taxpayer information, Spires said.

“The business units within the IRS rely so heavily on information technology solutions that they feel that investment in IT is a real investment in their future,” he said. “It’s how they can drive better performance from the organization.”

Spires said he works to partner with the business side of the IRS and understand its needs and expectations of IT. He then tries to fulfill those needs through modernization efforts. “The nature of…partnering with the business to get those answers puts you strategically at the table,” he said.

Karen Evans, administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget, said CIOs are essential to government because its greatest asset is information. Evans said the federal government needs experts who know how to manage information, and those experts are CIOs.

Cohen: Not exactly what we envisionedTen years after the Clinger-Cohen Act was signed into law, agencies have chief information officers, but CIOs have not evolved into the strategic leaders that William Cohen, the legislation’s co-sponsor, had envisioned.

“I’m not sure the perception of a CIO is exactly what we would like it to be,” said Cohen, speaking at a recent industry event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Clinger-Cohen Act. The former senator and Defense secretary is now chief executive officer of the Cohen Group, a global business consulting company.

CIOs should be working to integrate programs and must lead in creating governmentwide approaches to managing information, Cohen said. Their role, he added, should be to make information technology acquisitions more beneficial to the federal government, which spends more than $60 billion a year on IT.

— Matthew Weigelt

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