Some timely words of wisdom for a new agency CIO
As he admires his aircraft carrier-sized desk, your agency's new chief information
officer discovers three numbered envelopes inside the center drawer. Attached to these
envelopes is a note from his predecessor saying, "Open in order of your next three
Sure enough, the first crisis arrives in just six months. The General Accounting Office
conducts an audit of the department's information technology modernization. The project is
late and over budget. Auditors dig into the requirements analysis that the developers had
taken for gospel and discover that many program offices deny responsibility for
requirements attributed to them.
So the CIO opens the first envelope. A single sheet of paper inside says, "Blame
your predecessor." Of course! The CIO thinks, How could any reasonable person hold me
accountable for decisions made years ago? So he puts a
we-will-learn-from-the-mistakes-of-the-past spin on the report rebuttal. Blame slides off
his shoulders like eggs off a Teflon-coated pan.
Six months pass without incident. Then the secretary asks him to head a high-level
management team to study the implementation of an Office of Management and Budget
initiative to consolidate data centers. All the centers are under his management, so this
initiative promises to be a big loser from the start. Worse, the study team representative
for one of his major customers suggests that each center be managed by its principal
Somehow the secretary gets wind of this disastrous scheme and, heaven forbid, likes it.
This would put these centers under the protective wings of the undersecretaries, who are
politically well connected, unlike the career civil servant CIO.
This scheme is going to cost the CIO some turf--thousands of full- time employees.
Visions of chairing the Interagency Committee for IRM begin to fade. Post-retirement
opportunities start to evaporate. Clearly, this is a crisis worthy of the next magic
Breathlessly, he tears it open to discover a sheet with a single word written on it:
Galvanized by this miraculous insight, the CIO begins to plan his counterattack.
Several operational units can be relocated to the field, which reduces headquarters
staffing and broadens the scope of the centers. It doesn't hurt that dozens of jobs are
thereby relocated into the districts of several influential and most-appreciative members
of Congress. A few laudatory words are spoken over the luncheon table, and his rival's
proposal is forgotten. Thanks to newly enthusiastic backing on the Hill, the secretary is
pleased that the centers are once again saved from the OMB budget analyst's meat cleaver.
Another six months pass when suddenly our CIO is faced with congressional hearings on
the year 2000. His staff briefs him on the bad news. A preliminary software survey reveals
that more than 50 percent of the source code for the department's production systems
cannot be found. Most of the code that was discovered was the responsibility of several
senior programmers that just took buyouts to set up their own software maintenance
Thus their years of anonymous government service are likely to be rewarded with
lucrative sole-source software support contracts to solve the agency's year 2000 problem.
However, the day before the hearing the CIO discovers that this new company 's major
competitor is headquartered in the district of the chairman of the committee. The chairman
is determined to help a constituent in need of government contracts. Desperate for
inspiration, the CIO opens the last envelope. And what does the paper inside say?
"Prepare three envelopes."
As Poor Richard said, "Fish and company begin to smell after three days." The
tenure of the typical senior manager is measured in months largely for the same reason.
Sooner or later, a highly visible senior manager will make a career-limiting mistake, like
being in charge when the year 2000 chickens come home to roost. He or she then must
quickly retreat to another agency.
Once the manager is safely ensconced in the new digs, the past is forgotten and
forgiven. The key is proper timing. Move too quickly and your inconstancy is obvious. Move
too late and the odor will prevent another agency from picking you up.
Congress has put IT senior managers on notice about the year 2000 issue. Between now
and December 1999, I expect to see a lot of job movement in the top ranks of IT
That, and the preparation of lots of envelopes.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own World Wide Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.