CIOs: Agents of change in a hostile world

When you consider the challenges CIOs face, it's a wonder they last even two years in the job, says columnist Alan Balutis.

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

A much-anticipated Government Accountability Office report on federal CIOs has just emerged after several months of final review to allow comments from the executive branch (especially the Office of Management and Budget). I have written about this report earlier, but some additional comments seem in order now.

GAO’s findings will hardly be surprising to anyone who works in or with government IT issues. The auditors found that 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. Many CIOs serve in additional capacities, such as human capital officers. Median tenure in the CIO position has remained at about two years, which is unchanged since GAO released a similar report in 2004. But the number of CIOs who stay in office longer (i.e., at least three years) declined from 35 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2011. Finally, slightly more than half of the CIOs report directly to the heads of their respective agencies, which is required by law.

All of the above conclusions are presented in the bland bureaucratic prose for which GAO is famous. Put more starkly, the report concludes that CIOs haven’t been properly empowered, don’t have the full array of responsibilities needed to do their jobs, report at too low a level to be effective and don’t stay long enough to make a difference.

OMB largely agreed with GAO’s recommendations, which is the bureaucratic way of saying, “Thanks. We look forward to your next report on this issue in 2018.”

The section on median CIO tenure did attract my attention, however. GAO said CIOs typically leave their positions because of the work’s high stress level, the opportunity to take a CIO position at a larger agency or, for political appointees, a change in presidential administration. However, the auditors also found that political appointees left only four months earlier than those in career civil service positions, and I am honestly hard-pressed to think of many CIOs who have moved up the food chain. So we are left with the high stress level.

Admittedly, a job where one is given responsibilities and held accountable while not having the requisite authority to carry them out is inherently stressful. But I think there is an additional reason. The old joke is that “CIO” stands for “career is over.” It should stand for “change and innovation officer.”

CIOs have the task of transforming how the government conducts business internally (i.e., virtualization, cloud, mobility, security, etc.) and how it delivers service to the customer (i.e., the Internet, privacy, etc.). Change comes slowly and with associated difficulties in government. Being an agent of change, which is a key aspect of being a successful CIO in government, is buffeting, it’s stressful, and it’s often confrontational. It means taking on political superiors, congressional overseers, middle managers, union inspectors, affected employees, and on and on. It means dealing with real implementation issues and genuine policy differences — and allegations of improper conduct, discrimination, failure to follow proper procedures, short-cutting due process, and the like.

But don’t take my word on this. Sit down for a drink with a current or former CIO and ask her or him about being an agent of change in government. Maybe it’s a surprise that CIOs last a whole two years.

NEXT STORY: Air Force job cuts revealed

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