Smart government IT can be a catalyst for change

The current budget crisis could be an opportunity for federal CIOs to help their agencies build a smarter, more efficient and more cost-effective government.

Van Hitch

If there is anything that helps define the work of federal CIOs, it might be the reality of cost efficiency. Today’s budget constraints can make the work all the more challenging because many agency IT infrastructures are sorely in need of updating. Consequently, CIOs must find creative ways to achieve greater economy and effectiveness and to integrate themselves into their agency’s mission objectives.

IT might once have been just a back-office operation, but today it can be a vital tool for improving government operations overall — a view championed by Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel and the CIO Council. The cloud-first policy and the Digital Government Strategy both look to a future where IT can assist in goal-oriented decision-making by government executives and the citizens they serve.

In this era of fiscal austerity, there are three important steps that could help federal CIOs and executives realize the power of IT to be a catalyst for agency change.

Give CIOs more budget authority. CIOs need the authority to manage their own technology budgets and spearhead IT initiatives across the entire agency. This might require a broader definition of the CIO’s role — from a technology adviser and broker of IT services to a mission-enabling partner for operational managers. Today, a few CIOs have been propelled into this position as the result of a crisis, such as a mission failure due to an IT error or interruption in service. But CIOs are engaged to avoid critical system failures. Therefore, agencies hoping to secure their systems, integrate functions and achieve cost savings might need to use the services of their CIOs differently.

Integrate IT more closely with mission functions. CIOs who see technology as an integral part of their agency’s mission functions can achieve greater budgetary and integration success. During my tenure at the Justice Department, I understood that day-to-day IT functions and providing services to our 40 components constituted only one part of my job. Another part involved working directly with agency officials to understand the mission and provide insight into how IT could help them achieve that mission more efficiently and effectively, which gave me the opportunity to help shape key departmental budget priorities.

Create an IT strategic plan. To date, Office of Management and Budget initiatives, such as the 25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management, have created good policy building blocks for IT management. For smart government IT to become a reality, however, agency CIOs must champion the development of integrated, enterprisewide IT strategic plans that are tied to mission accomplishment. The reality is that yearly budget cycles are not always based on ground-up strategic planning. Today, a new or refreshed IT strategic plan might be completed every five years, but rarely does it represent a big-picture look at the new reality. Instead, such plans should be integrated with the department’s overall business strategy and incorporate specific details, including a cost/benefit analysis and projected budgeting.

Changing the way we view IT can be the first step toward seizing the opportunity to build a smarter, more efficient and more cost-effective government. IT can be the springboard to smarter government, and CIOs can help by stimulating discussions on how best to accomplish agency missions while looking at multiple alternatives, including the effective use of technology.

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