Agencies still lag in empowering their CIOs. What gives?

Despite legislation, other congressional pressures and a presidential executive order aimed at expanding the authorities of CIOs, most agencies still lack policies to make those requirements a reality.

(Image: jorgen mcleman/Shutterstock)

The role of agency CIOs has evolved to keep up as technology grows increasingly intertwined with critical missions and the delivery of government services, and these authorities -- from IT management to budget input to shaping the tech workforce -- have been enshrined in law for years.

Yet despite the passage of legislation and sustained oversight pressure from Capitol Hill -- not to mention a May 2018 executive order from President Donald Trump --  many agencies are still coming up short when it comes to internal policies for their CIOs.

The Government Accountability Office recently released a 195-page examination of how all 24 Chief Financial Officer Act agencies are doing when it comes to implementing IT policies consistent with federal laws and guidance in six areas.

By far, agencies scored the best on policies that address IT leadership and accountability -- 11 had policies fully addressing this category, and all 24 at least partially addressed it.

For the most part, agencies also had policies in place addressing IT budgeting and information security, even if the vast majority had not fully addressed them.

On IT investment management, strategic planning and the workforce, however, agencies fared poorly: not one fully implemented policy in any of these three areas.

With the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act's passage more than four years ago, what gives?

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who introduced FITARA and serves as the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform's Government Operations Subcommittee, said agencies’ reluctance to fully empower CIOs “hurts IT modernization and runs contrary to the goals of FITARA.”

“A chief CIO must report to the head of the agency, and if we have to, we’ll write that into law,” he said.

Rob Klopp, former CIO of the Social Security Administration, said he didn’t think the problem is with the law itself -- or the lack of other legislation.

“I think the issue has less to do with the fact the policies aren’t in place and more to do with the people … doing business the same old, same old,” he said. “I think it’s more of a leadership issue than a policy issue.”

And building those relationships among leadership takes time, Klopp said, noting that FITARA “is really relatively new, and not everyone has completely reorganized around those policies.”

Dave Powner, the recently departed head of IT issues at GAO, pointed out that executives come to government wanting responsibility and decision-making authority.

“Folks come here from the private sector,” he said. “Who wants to be buried at some agency? You want to be at the top making decisions and you believe in the mission and you really want to make a difference.”

In order to do that, Klopp said, leadership -- both agency heads and their CIOs -- need to collaborate and build a relationship with one another.

“In the case of IT modernization and doing the things we need to do, I think that together the CIOs and the leaders of these things need to step up and put together coherent plans,” he said.

And building that confidence with the agency head is a responsibility of the CIO, Klopp said. “Confidence will grow if you can deliver wins.”

In its evaluation, GAO noted that 60 percent of permanent agency CIOs stay in the job for less than three years. Powner said the short tenure of federal CIOs, and the changes of strategies that accompany a change in leadership, is a “big darn deal” and a “big root cause of the problem.”

Klopp, who spent about two years at SSA, said the best thing CIOs can do in their limited time at an agency is to identify and prioritize a few projects “maybe not to the point of completion, but to the point of where it had so much momentum to where it could move forward to the point where it was successful.”

“The thing government doesn’t need is more policy,” he said.

FCW’s Derek B. Johnson contributed reporting to this article.

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