The Politicization Of The Federal CIO - InformationWeek
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7/23/2004
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The Politicization Of The Federal CIO

Has George W. Bush politicized the office of CIO in federal departments and agencies? When Bush took office in January 2001, six of 26 IT shops at major departments and agencies were headed by political appointees. Today, that number has doubled to a dozen, though one of them-Homeland Security's Steve Cooper-heads a department that didn't exist until last year.

Has George W. Bush politicized the office of CIO in federal departments and agencies? When Bush took office in January 2001, six of 26 IT shops at major departments and agencies were headed by political appointees. Today, that number has doubled to a dozen, though one of them-Homeland Security's Steve Cooper-heads a department that didn't exist until last year.There's no evidence showing that political appointees do a better or worse job than career public servants as CIOs. Either way, it's a tough job. "CIOs in the federal government are facing significant uphill battles in meeting their responsibilities," Adam Putnam, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations, and the Census, said at a recent hearing on the role of CIOs in government.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, recently interviewed 39 current and former federal CIOs and found a lack of consensus on whether the government and public are better service with CIOs who are political appointees or career civil servants.

"Some believed that political CIOs could be more effective because they might have more access to, and influence with, the agency head," David Powner, GAO director of IT management issues, wrote in a report submitted to Congress this week. "Others believed that CIOs in career positions could be more effective because, for example, they would be more likely to understand the agency, including its culture and work environment."

Both positions have merit. And, at most agencies, the CIO post has moved back and forth between political and civil service appointees since 1996, when Congress enacted the Clinger-Cohen Act that established agency and departmental CIO posts. Only seven agencies never had a political appointee as CIO: Energy, Army, General Services Administration, Interior, Justice, Nuclear Regulatory Agency, and Office of Personnel management. Except for Homeland Security, no other agency had only a political appointee as CIO.

At times, a cabinet secretary or agency head picks a political appointee with a specific agenda in mind. Unlike his predecessors and successor, Drew Ladner-Treasury's CIO for about 15 months until April 30, was a political appointee, brought in to shake up Treasury's IT operations. "I was appointed to achieve discrete, targeted goals in information technology governance, operations, and policy," Ladner wrote in his resignation letter to President Bush last spring.

What is clear: political CIOs such as Ladner, on average, don't last as long on the job as civil service ones. According to the GAO report, political appointees stayed on the job an average of 13 fewer months than career civil servants. The median tenure of a political appointee was 19 months vs. 32 months for nonpolitical CIOs. Paradoxically, the department with the biggest CIO turnover is Energy; in seven years, the department has had eight CIOs-all civil service.

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