It was 20 years ago today...

Mark Forman reflects on what two decades have taught us about the federal CIO's role and responsibilities.

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Twenty years ago today, June 25, 2001, I began work as the first Federal CIO, although my title was different. The position of a federal Information Technology (IT) leader, under the Clinger Cohen Act of 1996, was supposed to have been the Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget. By the end of 2000, however, as billions were spent on modernization to address Y2K and the dotcom era was driving new citizen-centered service delivery models, it was widely accepted that the U.S. needed to appoint an official responsible for making the U.S. a global leader in e-government. That was the job I took on. Two decades later, some clear lessons have emerged about the role and what should be done to it in the future.

The original Bush Administration vision was that the Federal CIO would be the leader for making the federal government “citizen centered, not agency centered.” The E-Government Act resulted from an alignment between Congress and the E-Government Strategy, which we built in the first 90 days I was in office. It supplemented the Clinger-Cohen Act authorities for OMB, and laid out the E-Government Administrator’s authorities. Simply put, the administrator is responsible for: enhancing the access to and delivery of government information and services; and bringing about improvements in government operations, including effectiveness, efficiency, service quality, or transformation (US Code Title 44, section 3601). Congress used the term “administrator” to be consistent with titles of non-budgetary OMB executives.

Although the role is now referred to as the Federal Chief Information Officer, the legal authorities and responsibilities have changed very little. In addition to delivering better citizen services, the administration and Congress wanted to address IT management shortcomings that were inhibiting return on IT spending. For example:

  • agencies buying IT systems without clear linkage to outcomes;
  • inadequate project management capability and other workforce skills;
  • projects rarely delivered on cost, schedule, and performance goals;
  • agencies automating existing processes, instead of leveraging technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness; and
  • siloed systems custom-built systems that forced redundant data collections and systems spending while inhibiting information sharing and customer service

The E-Government Strategy identified, and the E-government Act codified, specific responsibilities including federal IT spending decisions, enterprise architecture, information security, privacy, directing the CIO Council and other areas. The role of the Federal CIO is governance, not IT operations.

Over the years, the job as been held by people with a wide variety of backgrounds and approaches. What have we learned about the keys to success for the role?

First, this is a corporate management role -- knowledge of how IT can improve the business of government as an enterprise is critical for success. It is important that the Federal CIO understand the core missions of government, service delivery models, and decision-making workflow processes. Government operates using legal structures built to address issues in public goods, social services, public safety, and interest group needs, but public surveys usually show that the public wants government to be as efficient and easy as business. The CIO role is difficult for people who do not understand the context of federal programs and legal structures.

Second, the role requires partnering with other White House organizations to work the power structure in the Executive Office of the President. Establishing a tight working relationship within OMB is key to using the budget authorities in sync with IT management authorities to align IT spending and results. Multiple EOP offices have a vested interest in outcomes, such as the Domestic Policy Council on social services initiatives and the Cabinet Secretary on management of the agencies. For me, partnering with at least two other EOP offices on major issues was necessary, such as the Office of the Vice President and National Security Council on cybersecurity issues or Vice President and Homeland Security Council in post-9/11 reforms. For cross-agency management initiatives, the CIO should work with the Cabinet Secretary or Chief of Staff.

A third lesson is that the CIO must have strong public speaking skills and the ability to generate trusted relationships in open interactive forums, such as congressional hearings and media. This requires the ability to develop a staff and set of systems that not only facilitate OMB decision-making, but provide the facts and insights needed to create consensus, or at least understanding, for the tough decisions inherent in the role.

Fourth, the CIO needs executive presence to engage with agency leaders, and to work with presidential personnel to make sure key appointees (e.g., Undersecretaries for Management) understand the importance of modernization and cybersecurity.

Fifth, the CIO needs analytic tools that enable fact-based IT governance decision-making. The E-Government Act codified the strategic requirements for the CIO to oversee a broad range of information and IT actions. Like so much of government, intuitive decisions are not sustainable, and the management side of OMB can win fights over the best way forward only if it can provide the facts to support its position. For the CIO, that means leveraging the budget process and information security reporting to feed analytics tools that provide both governmentwide insights (e.g., for getting maximum benefits from shared services), to make decisions to kill or fix poor performing programs (as required under Clinger-Cohen), and to help overcome resistance to change needed for successful modernization.

Over the last 20 years, the role has morphed in many ways, but the legal requirements have not. Cybersecurity and business process modernization still dominate the issues facing the CIO. And a key missing link is still the ability for the CIO to drive major reforms.

The Evidence-based Policymaking Act and 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act are spawning literally thousands of opportunities. But the Congressional Oversight Committees and Appropriations Subcommittees still do not seem to agree on governmentwide modernization approaches, and the $1 billion multi-year funding of the Technology Modernization Fund is likely to provide less than 10% of the annual need.

Perhaps the best way to address the challenges would be for the Federal CIO to build issue papers using a fact-based approach to address the major service delivery performance gaps and submit the modernization proposal with the President’s Budget for initial action by the Congressional Budget Committees. Leadership is needed to keep the original mission of the E-Government Act moving forward. And while the Federal CIO can’t lead alone, coalition-building and data-driven persuasion can be powerful tools.

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