INTERNAUT—Commentary

New CPO: Oversight with clout

With the backing of the executive branch, the new chief performance officer will have the ability to make agencies sit up and listen

Quote: "The CPO might not have a full bully pulpit, but will be able to strongly influence how program success is evaluated."

The nation's new chief performance officer might not be looking over your shoulder just yet — as of this writing, there is no nominee — but that's coming. So what can the average government information technology manager expect from this new watchdog?

One good hint might come from Government Accountability Office reports that deal with IT. Just visit gao.gov and enter "information management" in the search box, then sort the results by date. You'll find recommendations for everything from standardizing data structures to improving IT acquisition systems.

While reading, keep in mind that the executive branch traditionally has been slow, or even downright reluctant, to heed GAO's recommendations. No bombshell there -- the White House has its own plans and priorities for federal agencies. GAO answers to Congress rather than the president, giving it minimal influence over Cabinet-level agencies, whose leaders might not want to heed its suggestions.

Yes, GAO is nonpartisan in theory, but Congress often has a different focus than the president. So there is a hint of clashing political agendas even before the reports are read. In reality, the reports are often full of good ideas for improving many aspects of government, including IT and business processes. The advice just comes from the wrong place, in some agencies' opinion.

However, the reports still serve as a good compass for understanding some of what the CPO could focus on, after the administration finds someone to replace its original nominee, Nancy Killefer, who withdrew early this month because of tax-payment problems.

The CPO will identify overlapping systems and business efforts with a focus on improving government performance. What gives this position the ability to make Cabinet-level agencies finally sit up and listen is a tool that GAO doesn't enjoy: being able to directly influence, with the president's backing, appointed heads of departments, agencies and offices.

Thus, IT managers should pay attention to the general recommendations from the new CPO office and agency-specific recommendations.

President Barack Obama has called the CPO one of the most important positions in his administration; he or she will be responsible for improving agency accountability and reforming the federal budget.

The CPO might not have a full bully pulpit, because the secretaries of individual departments still control spending and projects. However, he or she will be able to strongly influence how program success is evaluated. Under the George W. Bush administration, the Office of Management and Budget developed a process of analyzing lines of business, particularly those that helped sustain the President's Management Agenda or promoted standardization of enterprise IT.

The first order of business will be to get a better handle on the federal money flow. In December, GAO issued a report, titled “Fiscal Year 2008 Financial Report of the U.S. Government,”  (GCN.com/1291) that was deeply critical of federal agencies’ ability to account for all financial transactions and decisions.

Read that report. And look at the old "go to green" grid that the Bush administration used to measure agency progress toward clearly defined goals. These are the things that will jump to the top of the new CPO's list — only the names will be different.

The promise of a CPO is enticing. If Congress, through GAO, can't always prod agencies toward necessary improvements, the executive branch can, with the right focus and leadership. That means that new requests for information about your systems and finances will be coming soon. Read what others have expected of you in the past. Be ready to take action this time.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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