No need for IT czar

Thomas R. Temin

The federal government needs an information technology czar like it needs a hole in the head.

The idea for a chief of chief information officers has been bandied about lately as a way to deal with Congress on funding IT projects.

Advocates for an IT czar mean well, but the idea is fundamentally flawed on two counts.

First, IT per se doesn't get funds, programs do. Strong, skilled program leadership attracts IT investment. When programs are weak or mismanaged, IT funds tend to dry up. The whole point of agencies having CIOs is to make sure that IT investments align with agency missions'and agency missions are expressed in programs.

Ultimately, then, it's hard to see precisely who or what an IT czar would represent.

The second flaw stems from the way congressional oversight works. Agencies fall under the thumbs of Capitol Hill subfiefdoms. A member grilling, say, Education Department officials on the progress of student loan systems won't want to hear from an IT czar. Nor, for that matter, would an assistant secretary for administration or a CIO want to answer to a toothless IT czar.

So, an IT czar would have precious little inherent power.

At a recent conference, a panel of CIOs debated whether an IT czar would boost the authority CIOs have or are supposed to have. The answers were mixed.

The degree of authority a given CIO acquires depends on many factors, including his or her own skills, prestige and leadership abilities. But that authority is also highly dependent on the inclination of the secretary.

To be sure, czar-type jobs can be effective. Steve Kelman turned the Office of Federal Procurement Policy into a creative force in the mid-1990s. John Koskinen did the same for the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion. Both were skilled leaders, but both also had nearly unqualified administration backing'a rare confluence of factors.

For electronic government and other technology-dependent efforts to succeed, the answer isn't an IT czar but something less glamorous and tougher: consistently good program management.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: editor@gcn.com

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