Do CIOs have enough power to do their jobs?

Do CIOs have enough power to do their jobs?

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff

Most federal agencies have chief information officers, and CIO is a common acronym along Washington's halls of power. But some in government say federal CIOs need more authority. What is needed, several government oversight officials and CIOs have said, is the authority to make top-level decisions'power equivalent to that of their private-sector counterparts.

With the exception of the CIOs at the Agriculture and Defense departments, federal CIOs do not have direct influence over IT procurements, Transportation Department CIO George R. Molaski said.

Several CIOs and other federal officials testified before Congress recently during a hearing in which lawmakers discussed the roles of CIOs.

'Chief information officers in the private sector have provided the technical and managerial expertise that has successfully brought corporate America into an era dominated by high technology,' Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.) said at a recent hearing of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, of which he is chairman.

Federal CIOs must accomplish similar technical and management feats, but agency leaders have to give them the authority to do so, Horn said.

Lawmakers and officials implementing policy said the convergence of empowerment and accountability for CIOs is critical.

'As the federal government fully embraces electronic commerce, leadership in the management of the government's information resources becomes of paramount importance,' said Jeffrey C. Steinoff, acting assistant comptroller for the General Accounting Office.

That leadership is still lacking, according to GAO officials and some government CIOs.

'In the private sector, many CIOs have evolved into chief technology officers working side by side with the chief executive officer,' Treasury Department CIO James Flyzik said. 'The public-sector CIO has not yet reached this level of influence.'

Four years after Congress mandated that agencies establish CIOs, many still are trying to make full use of control and evaluation processes and to maintain performance metrics for their IT, testified David L. McClure, GAO's associate director of governmentwide and Defense information systems.

And agencies have made inadequate progress in designing and implementing IT architectures before proceeding with massive modernization efforts, McClure said.

'More remains to be done to ensure that federal CIOs establish themselves as effective information management leaders,' McClure testified at the hearing.

Unique hurdles

Rep. Steve Horn says government CIOs need authority that is comparable to that of their industry counterparts.

Private-sector leaders agree that federal CIOs face tough challenges.

'I believe that the CIO function is one of the most difficult roles today any person has been assigned to in the federal government,' said Lee Cooper, Unisys Corp.'s vice president for business development, at a recent Professional Services Council luncheon in Washington.

Federal CIOs face unique structural and cultural hurdles, GAO noted last month in an executive guide, Maximizing the Success of Chief Information Officers: Learning From Leading Organizations.

The guide, developed under McClure's direction, looked at three private-sector and three state CIO offices, and presented recommendations to improve federal CIOs' effectiveness. The study looked at the CIO operations of Chase Manhattan Corp., General Motors Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and the states of Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

The CIO position must evolve, Flyzik told the subcommittee.

The first challenge: Take advantage of rapidly evolving technology to make government more effective.

'It's amazing how fast electronic business is hitting us,' Agriculture Department CIO Joseph Leo said. 'Technology is racing at a tremendous speed.'

Public and congressional perceptions are also a challenge, he said. 'There is this perception'right or wrong'that I can turn all of these legacy systems overnight into a user-friendly, interactive, two-way dialogue with the American public at no additional cost.'

The uncertain and complex federal appropriations process limits CIOs' ability to take advantage of fleeting technological developments, Leo said. The struggle to find investment money beyond the basic budget is an everyday challenge for federal CIOs, he said.

IRS CIO Paul J. Cosgrave said most IT money comes from the agency's base program funding.

'If it's new, above the base, it stands out like a sore thumb' and draws attention from lawmakers, he said.

Adair Martinez, CIO of the Veterans Benefits Administration, agreed that funding IT projects is a challenge.

'One of the biggest differences between the public and private sectors is the budget and planning cycle,' she said. 'The public sector cannot react as quickly to technology. Private-sector CIOs can plan on a shorter cycle to take advantage of it. Public-sector CIOs must think two to five years out.'

Funding limitations also hinder the government's efforts to retain skilled IT professionals and attract new blood, Flyzik said.

Cosgrave noted that 25 percent of the IRS' work force will be eligible for retirement in the next few years; the average age of the agency's IT officials is 46.

'If we don't do something soon, we will be out of business,' Cosgrave said. 'We are not able to attract [IT professionals] because our starting salaries in the government are not competitive.'

VBA's Adair Martinez says the budget process curtails quick action by CIOs.

Leo said his department has lost 22,500 employees since 1993.

'What do you do with that?' Leo asked. 'I am concerned with the alignment of IT architecture and human resources. I have to have the human capacity to manage IT.'

But the premier challenge noted by lawmakers, GAO and CIOs themselves is finding a way to ensure that federal CIOs have decision-making authority. With enough clout, most said, they could overcome all other challenges.

Many CIOs said they have tacit authority and direct interaction with their agency chiefs.

Executive treatment

In its CIO guide, GAO noted that the government treats IT as a support function rather than a strategic asset, and the CIO as a support officer, not a decision-making executive.

Flyzik said he feels lucky to have an 'excellent working relationship with the chief financial officer' at Treasury, so he is involved in every IT investment decision.

Cosgrave added: 'I will hold up my relationship with IRS commissioner Charles O. Rossotti as a good one. I am lucky because I am a direct adviser to him. I advise him two to three times a day. It has to be a very open relationship.'

Molaski said he also acts as a close IT policy adviser to Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater, but he agreed that federal CIOs should control IT decisions.

Agency heads should 'position CIOs as change agents with responsibility for applying technology to achieve major improvements in fundamental business processes and operations,' the GAO guide stated.

CIOs can retain leadership support by following through on commitments to effectively lead projects, provide needed information management products and services, and train users, GAO concluded.


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