Former CIO explains why he bailed out

Roger Baker

Wow, has it been three years? It has certainly been enjoyable and challenging. So why did I leave my job last month as the Commerce Department's chief information officer?

It's because I believe the Commerce secretary should have the opportunity to pick the person who holds this job. At Commerce, either he or the president picks the person in every other direct reporting position. But Secretary Donald Evans inherited me, a career civil servant.

It is often said that CIOs should have a seat at the table. To be welcome in that seat, a CIO needs to be a member of the family, and in the federal government the other people in the family'and at the table'are almost always political appointees.

If we want to have CIOs at agency tables throughout government, they need to be political appointees.

Right now, about two-thirds of the cabinet-level CIO positions are held by career civil servants, many of whom I know well enough to call friends'at least, until they read this. And as a career CIO, I'm not saying that career people can't do the job. I believe quite the opposite. Many of the best CIOs in government are career civil servants. They are doing a tremendous job of leading the transition from IRM executive to CIO.

What I am saying is that the continued elevation of the CIO in the federal government comes at a price. That price is the necessary conversion of the senior IT position in a department from career to political. From tolerated to essential. From inherited to chosen.

I benefited from being chosen by former Secretary Richard M. Daley and deputy secretary Robert L. Mallett. Their trust was fundamental to my ability to make significant changes at Commerce. Because a CIO has little control over the IT budget, the trust and confidence of the secretary is a critical factor in a CIO's ability to make changes happen. And while it's possible to establish that trust and confidence if you're inherited, it's a lot easier when you've been chosen by the secretary.

So, it's time to declare victory and go home. As the first real CIO at Commerce, I'm confident I have transformed the position from oversight to management, from one about which people said, 'Why is he here?' to one about which they say, 'Where is he?'

But the most important transformation is bittersweet. The Commerce CIO has a seat at the table. But I'm not part of the new family.

Roger Baker is the former chief information officer of the Commerce Department.


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