Why I'm hesitant to recommend a federal CIO

Ira Hobbs

Almost weekly, a new call goes out across the land for the appointment of a governmentwide chief information officer. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) recently introduced a bill to do just that.

Me? I am not so sure it's the way to go.

Presumably, the CIO would lead governmentwide efforts to create electronic government from the perspective of citizens. Today, despite some notable exceptions, agencies are mostly creating e-government applications in relative isolation, program by program. This creates the perception that, at least from a governmentwide perspective, no one is guiding the ship.

Though exceptions exist, there are many areas, I think, where agencies and program managers should be collaborating but are not.

So will a governmentwide CIO make the difference?

My answer, of course, is that it depends on how well the CIO understands the government, especially how well he or she understands the possibilities and challenges facing government as it tries to deploy the Internet and other information technologies. Success would also depend on whether the federal CIO grasps why government differs from the private sector. Confusion on that point will create nothing but frustration.

The difference a CIO can make would also depend on his or her leadership and ability to work with agency CIOs, program managers and other officials who often find it difficult enough to collaborate internally, before you throw in federal-state and tribal boundaries. John Koskinen, former director of the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion, comes to mind as a model.

A huge factor in whether the governmentwide CIO can make a difference is the level of resources she or he can bring to the table'I mean real money. A CIO won't get very far if forced to pass the hat for everything.

Along with sufficient funds for projects, the CIO will need sufficient staff. Trying to influence what is happening across the vast expanse of the federal government is not a task one can achieve without ground troops to assist and stay on top of multiple projects.

The ability of the CIO to make a difference will depend on what kinds of incentives are put into place to prompt federal managers to look outside of the boundaries of their own particular program or agency, to be creative in trying to make a difference.

Finally, success will depend on what federal career employees perceive as being in the deal for them. If they perceive e-government as being about job cuts and outsourcing, then the federal CIO's job will be that much more difficult, perhaps impossible.

Perhaps the most important 'it depends' is this question, which sort of answers itself: Do you think government can transform itself primarily by relying on the status quo?

Ira Hobbs is deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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