The evolving role of the federal CIO

FITARA takes a good step toward giving CIOs more authority, but the legislation needs to go further.

Michael Hettinger

Given the growing importance of data, cybersecurity, cloud computing, mobile communications and more, the CIO has taken a more prominent role in nearly all businesses. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for government, where an increasingly crowded management structure often limits the CIO’s influence.

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 established a CIO at each federal agency with the intent of giving that person access to the agency secretary and enough internal “juice” to drive effective IT management throughout the agency. Some 17 years later, it is clear there is a long way to go to fulfill that original intent.

The implementation of the act has been inconsistent at best, with CIOs’ successes and failures often more dependent on their personalities than on a structure that supports their access and influence. When the Government Accountability Office interviewed 30 CIOs at major agencies in 2011, only 56 percent said they had direct access to the agency secretary or administrator, down from 70 percent in 2004. Combine that downward trend with the proliferation of other chiefs and it’s easy to see that CIOs are struggling in a crowded management environment.

Federal CIOs are still in many cases viewed as technologists or IT geeks when they should be seen as strategic business partners to the program or agency mission, as Clinger-Cohen intended. How can we change this?

Congress should start by redefining the role of the CIO. The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act begins to address that issue by giving CIOs expanded authority over IT purchases and making the CIOs at the 16 largest agencies (minus the Defense Department) presidential appointees. It also seeks to address the structural problem described above by ensuring that the CIOs at those 16 agencies have direct access to the agency’s top leader.

Federal CIOs are still in many cases viewed as technologists or IT geeks when they should be seen as strategic business partners.

As FITARA moves forward, Congress should expand it to include DOD — after all, it accounts for 50 percent of all IT spending — and all agencies under the Chief Financial Officers Act, which are the 24 largest agencies. The legislation must also make sure agency leaders understand that having the CIO report directly to the secretary is a requirement, not an option. That will require a cultural change at some agencies, but it is essential if we are to truly empower the CIO.

There is precedent for this important structural requirement. In 2003, as staff director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s management subcommittee, I drafted legislation known as the DHS Financial Accountability Act to empower the Department of Homeland Security’s CFO. At the time, the CFO was required by agency policy to report to the undersecretary for management, in violation of the statutory provisions of the CFO Act requiring direct access to the secretary.

Our argument was simple: If we expected the CFO at DHS to play a major role in shaping the agency’s financial future, that person needed access to the top. We recognized that the only way to ensure that this would happen was to put it in statute. The same argument now holds true for federal CIOs.

If we want and expect CIOs in government to be strategic business partners in achieving the mission, we have to give them access to the agency head and put them in a position to succeed. It is clear that agencies are not going to do this on their own, so it is essential that Congress require it in statute. The move would do what most businesses in the country already do: recognize the critical value of information, data and digital commerce by elevating the overall standing of the CIO.

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