Vance Hitch: Secrets of a long-serving government CIO

Vance Hitch, who was the longest-serving CIO at a Cabinet-level agency, reflects on what he learned during his nine-year tenure at the Justice Department.

When he retired in July, the Justice Department’s Vance Hitch had the distinction of being the longest-serving CIO at a Cabinet-level agency in the federal government.

His nine-year tenure began when he joined the department in April 2002, several months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hitch immediately took charge of Justice’s $2 billion IT portfolio, with particular emphasis on initiatives related to counterterrorism, information sharing and first responder communications.

Years later, as cybersecurity, financial crime and identity theft became pressing concerns, Hitch led initiatives at Justice and the federal CIO Council, where he served as co-chairman of the Information Security and Identity Management Committee.

Before working at Justice, Hitch was a senior partner at Accenture for 28 years and a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

He recently spoke with Federal Computer Week staff writer Alice Lipowicz about what he learned during his years at Justice and how he sees the role of the CIO evolving.

FCW: How did you make the transition from the private sector to government, and what did you learn in the process that might help other CIOs?

Hitch: It was definitely a change, at a time of crisis. The Justice Department was energized and focused on how to prevent [the 2001 terrorist attacks] from happening again. I was energized personally by the mission.

The key lies in understanding the mission, building relationships and setting key priorities. That would be my advice to incoming CIOs.

FCW: How have you helped to elevate the role of federal CIOs?

Hitch: I think the role of the CIO is evolving. The CIO’s role is one of the key factors in making change happen across the department through technology. The CIO has to be positioned in top management and supported by top management to be successful.

The federal CIO Council tried to facilitate that. We wanted to make sure we were working closely with the Office of Management and Budget.

FCW: Did it help when President Barack Obama appointed Vivek Kundra as the first federal CIO?

Hitch: I think it helped. It elevated the position and helped focus the policy authority.

FCW: Were you pleased with what you accomplished with regard to counterterrorism and information-sharing initiatives?

Hitch: Those were pivotal issues in terms of mission, with IT support. Prior to [Sept. 11, 2001], there had been information sharing, but getting together to share broadly was something new.

It was a very transformative time. We had the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Program and the National Data Exchange, which ultimately is the principal network for sharing. We had federal identity management and suspicious activity reporting.

The National Information Exchange Model [a common vocabulary for sharing information electronically] was positioned in DOJ, and it has spread.

I’m very pleased and proud of what we have done with information-sharing. It has achieved what can be done with technology. It has been an enabler for law enforcement and improved the ability to connect the dots and fight crime. The cultural change is still happening. This is very different from nine years ago, I feel.

FCW: In the past decade, cybersecurity has become a growing concern. How have you gone about addressing it?

Hitch: It is something we identified as an area to focus on and get ahead of the curve. I’ve been very pleased, and we have come a long way. We have organization, technology and processes in place to protect information at the DOJ. We have the Justice Security Operations Center, which is a 24/7 enabler, to monitor our system. This is a major accomplishment; we’re in a good place.

At the CIO Council, we chartered the Information Security and Identity Management Committee. We wanted to be a bridge to leverage things across government so that cyber protections would not be stovepiped.

We also advised the White House, and I feel we’ve been very effective in doing that. For example, with the phishing threat, [the White House] wanted a plan, so [cybersecurity coordinator] Howard Schmidt came to the committee, and now we have a phishing plan. It is not isolated.

We worked on many avenues, such as [Federal Information Security Management Act] reform. It was helpful to learn to get more efficient as a result of FISMA. We worked on making it less compliance-oriented and more [focused on] monitoring.

Identity management was an active part of our mission. Fingerprints are kind of the gold standard and have been for quite a while, and FBI is the leader in fingerprinting.

We’ve pushed for tools in the Integrated Automated Fingerprint ID System and the Next Generation [Identification] system.

FCW: How has the Justice Department embraced social media?

Hitch: An evolution absolutely has taken place. The key is to embrace [social networking] carefully and use it where it is appropriate. You have to use it safely and wisely. What we have done at DOJ is to set up guidelines, which have been pretty effective.

FCW: How did you manage serving under two presidents with different political views?

Hitch: The key is relationship development, credibility and being an honest broker. I don’t get involved in the political aspects.

FCW: What are some of the lessons you learned as a federal CIO?

Hitch: To do the job of CIO, you have to be a marathoner and a sprinter at the same time. It’s very difficult. It’s difficult keeping up the pace, but it’s also challenging and rewarding.

The only frustration has been the time it takes to get things done. It’s a very complex environment. I wish they could move faster. We have accomplished a lot. I feel really good about that.

You have to be somewhat unflappable; very, very persistent; and patient. You have to know when to show emotion, but you cannot do it all the time. You have to make decisions.

I’ve been able to see projects from cradle to grave, and most CIOs don’t get to do that. I have had the perspective.

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