The future of federal IT leadership

It’s time to confront, not ignore, the changing expectations for CIOs.

CIO (Panchenko Vladimir/Shutterstock.com)

Priorities and expectations for federal information technology (IT) leaders are shifting, and it’s worth examining what this shift implies for the future of chief information officers (CIOs).

At press time for this column, IT efforts at eight of the largest federal agencies are being led by an acting CIO. Almost 13 months passed before Suzette Kent came on board as the federal CIO; and the federal CTO position remains vacant still today. At the Department of Defense, it will have been well over a year until Terry Halvorsen’s replacement (Dana Deasy) steps into the job. At the Navy, after seven months with an acting CIO, the position and office are now been reorganized.

To be clear: There are some outstanding individuals serving as acting CIOs. But the fact remains that having a named CIO with the confidence and backing of the agency head sends an important message about the importance of the work, as well as providing a stronger position to execute plans that require realignment of agency resources and changes to existing programs.

The Navy CIO reorganization, for example, speaks to the Navy’s increasing emphasis on business process change. Time will tell whether this is a bold move that recognizes today’s priorities are less focused on the classic CIO responsibilities called out in statute and monitored by scorecards, and far more about access to innovation – both business process innovation and technology innovation.

More broadly, though, there’s a tendency in government to avoid confronting an organization or individual no longer delivering desired results and instead create new “chiefs” to focus on new priorities -- letting the legacy organization wither until it becomes a ripe target for reorganization or elimination.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of new chiefs -- CTOs, chief data officers, chief digital officers, etc. Data analytics and digital solutions are widely embraced in industry and worthy of focused federal leadership attention. And CTOs in particular serve an important role in bringing attention to the use of new technologies rather than remaining wed to the outdated solutions that currently consume the vast majority of the federal IT budget.

But beyond the importance of this new work, success continues to require bringing together advances in technology with leading industry practices -- leveraging technology to deliver mission results. For a federal agency, that effort spans a massive hierarchical organization with processes and governance that have been in place for decades.

Shifting to a more lean and agile organization will be hard work. In reorganizing, it would be wrong to take away the responsibilities for mission results from mission owners. That typically leads to a lack of authority aligned to responsibility and expectations. Similarly, it would be counterproductive to establish or maintain “cylinders of excellence” that work independently on pieces of the technology puzzle, leaving the agency head to knit together and de-conflict efforts.

And yet, while some federal agencies are shifting responsibilities away from their CIO, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the role of CIO in industry has been increasing in influence by being the focal point for leading change. Private-sector CIOs are driving the adoption of digital solutions and new technologies, focusing on corporate strategy and being deeply engaged in improving business operations.

If these priorities sound familiar, you may be having flashbacks to the early days of the Clinger-Cohen Act. While the technologies have changed, the prize remains successfully bringing together people, processes and technology. Today though, CIO roles at some agencies have drifted away from these priorities in favor of compliance, certifications and checking the work done by others.

So rather than avoiding the issue, we should face it head on. Perhaps the “I” in “CIO” should emphasize the importance of innovation. The future will likely be less about multi-year, multi-billion dollar IT system development efforts and more about rapid deployment of incremental capabilities on mobile, digital platforms that engage the customer and deliver results. Federal agencies should rally and embrace the moment rather than continuing to languish in a space that perpetuates CIOs with a dwindling set of responsibilities competing with other independent technology positions.

Whether we continue to call them CIOs or not, we should move beyond the status quo and fill the senior technology leadership job at each agency with an individual who has the innovation skills necessary to transform legacy IT organizations. These leaders much bring the ability to orchestrate across technology, processes and people to deliver the results we seek rather than the status quo we have known. We deserve no less.

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