CIO: Really, sincerely dead?

The CIO position in government continues to struggle, and tightening budgets make the situation worse, writes columnist Alan Balutis.

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group.

Last summer, I wrote a blog titled "The munchkin coroner concludes...,” about the troubled history and role of CIOs in the federal government. The reference is, of course, drawn from the 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz," in which the timid munchkins come out of hiding to celebrate the demise of the Wicked Witch of the East only after she has been pronounced dead by their coroner.

CIOs “are ill-defined positions that haven’t worked well in the 15 years since they were created," I wrote a year ago. "The uneven organizational placement, the constant turnover and the lack of authority have all combined to render the overall positions...incapable of bringing about the change the Clinger-Cohen Act envisioned.”

Now the Government Accountability Office offers some confirming documentation, albeit with a much less catchy title than mine: “Federal Chief Information Officers: Opportunities Exist to Improve Role in Information Technology Management.” The soon-to-published report, prepared at the request of Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, had three primary objectives: 1) Determine the correct roles and responsibilities of CIOs, 2) determine what potential modifications to the Clinger-Cohen Act and related laws could be made to enhance CIOs' authority and effectiveness, and 3) identify key lessons learned by CIOs in managing IT.

So what did GAO auditors find? They discovered that, by and large, the position of the CIO is a far cry from what the Clinger-Cohen Act envisioned. Specifically:

  • CIOs do not consistently have responsibility for 13 major areas of IT and information management as defined by law or deemed critical to effective IT management.
  • CIOs are often not responsible for key duties such as records management and compliance with privacy requirements.
  • Tenure in CIO positions has remained steady at about two years.
  • Slightly more than half of CIOs report directly to the head of their respective agencies as required by the Clinger-Cohen Act.
  • CIOs do not always have sufficient control over IT investments, and they often have limited influence over the IT workforce and component-level CIOs via hiring and firing decisions.

Most telling perhaps is that most CIOs have limited control and influence over IT budgets. At a time when tighter budgets could lead to government doing less with less — and at a time when technology could be a powerful enabler — it is troubling to find, as GAO has, that CIOs have not been empowered to be successful.

As the report concludes: “Despite the broad authority given to CIOs in federal law, those officials face limitations that hinder their ability to effectively exercise this authority, which has contributed to many of the longstanding IT management challenges that we have found in our work.”

Let’s hope that the Office of Management and Budget and the senators who requested the study act on its findings and recommendations.

But they will need to act soon. The commissioner of the Social Security Administration, citing budget pressures and the need to reduce costs, recently abolished the agency's CIO office, moved its responsibilities to several other offices and accepted the resignation of the incumbent appointee. And in one of his last memos at the Defense Department, recently retired Secretary Robert Gates ordered CIO Teri Takai to come up with a plan to reconfigure the Networks and Information Integration office into "into a smaller and more focused and strengthened CIO office that…achieves savings from eliminating functions that are duplicative and no longer necessary.”

The CIO position appears to no longer be the presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed position it was under previous secretaries, certainly the mark of a downgraded status in the department. What's next?

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