Rethinking (again) the role of CIO

Eighteen years after the Clinger-Cohen Act created the position, experts discuss how the job of agencies' top IT executives has changed.

Paul Brubaker - photo source: Cisco

Defense Department official Paul Brubaker was one of several federal IT veterans to discuss the role of the CIO at an April 17 AFFIRM event.

As Congress contemplates updates to agency CIO authorities, it might be worth asking how the role of top government IT executives has changed in the 18 years since the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act, which created the position.

Paul Brubaker, a Defense Department official who helped write Clinger-Cohen as a Senate aide back in the 1990s, sees the government dealing with many of the same service delivery and program management problems that the law was designed to correct.

After reading from the original committee report that accompanied the law, Brubaker noted that the intent was to update antiquated, paper-based, process-oriented acquisition methods and create accountability for service delivery.

"Does this sound familiar?" Brubaker asked at an April 17 event in Washington sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management. "I don't think it's lived up to its promise. Somewhere along the line, we lost the script. As each year passes, we get further and further away from the reason for doing it."

The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which passed the House in February, contemplates giving agency-level CIOs clear authority over IT budgets, including those responsible for components of larger agencies.

Simon Szykman, CIO at the Commerce Department, said he does not necessarily think that would be wise. Although FITARA was not mentioned specifically during the panel discussion, he noted a distinction between commodity IT, such as email and cloud computing, and mission IT, where the responsibility might rest squarely with an agency.

"I wouldn't necessarily argue that the CIO at Commerce should control every single dollar of IT spending," he said. "We have satellites up in space doing Earth observations, and my office certainly doesn't have expertise in satellites. If you're talking about budget control, focus it more on the commodities because that's what is common to most organizations and harder for organizations to argue is unique to them."

CIO authorities are a perennial topic at federal IT community gatherings, but the panelists also cited outside factors that contribute to inefficiency and waste in IT procurements. CIOs and others in government must contend with procurement rules dating back generations, hiring rules that prevent recruiting top talent, agency leaders who might lack understanding of the role of IT, obscure compliance-based budgeting rules, aggressive inspectors general, and the overlapping authorities of various congressional committees.

"What's gone on here over the course of the last several decades is every Congress we throw a couple of layers of paint on top of this structure, and it has constipated the system," Brubaker said.

Karen Evans, who led the e-government office under President George W. Bush, said that although high-profile failures like HealthCare.gov might inspire calls for reform in Congress, they can also cause retrenchment among feds and contractors.

"Everybody jumps into compliance," Evans said. "What ends up happening [is] people on both sides become risk averse because they don't want to end up on the Hill."

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