Here's an appointment not worth keeping: a governmentwide CIO

Robert Gellman
Last year, Capitol Hill was awash in proposals to establish a governmentwide chief information officer. Is this a good idea? I tend to be highly skeptical of any management initiatives coming from Congress.

Many feds recognized the importance of information technology to agencies decades ago when information resources management was first identified as an area of concern. That was one reason Congress established the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget. We hear the same rhetoric now for appointing a federal CIO.

OIRA's information policy and technology influence has waxed and waned over the years. Even if we could agree that OIRA is a bust, that doesn't mean the government needs a new official to replace it. After all, OIRA was useful in the past. So maybe there's just a failure of current leadership.

Why am I so doubtful about a CIO czar appointment? First, Congress cannot manage anything, not even itself. As an institution, Congress is not poorly managed; it is unmanaged. This condition is not necessarily terrible, even if expensive and inefficient. Congress is unique, and its members are accountable only to their constituents. That's one reason Congress is not brimming over with ideas about how to manage IT more competently. Most congressional offices have yet to figure out how to handle e-mail.

Second, some proposals for a governmentwide CIO depend on the job's being in the Executive Office of the President. The theory is that the post will function best if it is placed high enough in the EOP. Yeah, right. Congress cannot direct the president's agenda. The president probably wouldn't pay attention to a CIO if the two were required by law to share the same desk.

Managing IT policy is neither a presidential nor a political issue. Does anyone think the president will put aside foreign policy, budget priorities and political concerns to decide whether the federal government should use PCs or Macs?

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant.
E-mail him at [email protected].


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