Differing Solutions For Problems Faced By Federal CIOs - InformationWeek
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Differing Solutions For Problems Faced By Federal CIOs

A House subcommittee brings in network of past and present agency CIOs to find out why project results are inconsistent.

It's not easy being a federal CIO, but that's no excuse for failed projects. Such was the sentiment this week at a Congressional technology subcommittee hearing called to find out why some IT projects succeed and others fail.

Present and past CIOs from various departments and agencies attended the hearing to explain why, despite a federal IT budget of $60 billion, consistent results cannot be attained.

A report by the Government Accountability Office indicates that inconsistencies can even be found in the strategic responsibilities of the CIOs.

While all 27 federal CIOs at the Wednesday hearing claimed responsibility for five of the report's 13 management categories, less than half took responsibility for two categories: information disclosure and statistical policy. (Common responsibilities included enterprise architecture, information security, and IT-investment management.)

And although the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which established the position of a CIO in each agency, calls for CIOs to report directly to their agency heads, eight CIOs don't follow this protocol, instead reporting to deputy directors or other administrators.

Departmental performance isn't helped by turnover. CIOs hold their positions for an average of two years, despite GAO research indicating that three to five years is optimal.

"CIOs in the federal government are facing significant uphill battles in meeting their responsibilities," said Adam Putnam, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations, and the Census.

There was no consensus, however, on how to resolve those battles.

A CIO shouldn't report directly to a department secretary but rather to the person most involved in managing the department, testified Clay Johnson, deputy director for management for the Office of Budget and Management.

OMB colleague Karen Evans agreed. "To be most effective, the CIO should work most with and be responsible to the department's top management person, which in most cases is the deputy secretary," said Evans, administrator of OMB's Office of E-government and Information Technology.

On the contrary, said ex-Treasury CIO James Flyzik. "A CIO should become part of an agency's senior team." Flyzik, who's now a partner with Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik and Associates, said, "That's the only way they can get credibility and get things done."

OMB's Johnson wasn't concerned at the brevity of the average federal CIO's tenure. "Some CIOs can join an organization and have an immediate impact, others can be there three or four years and have little effect," he said. What's more important, Evans added, is having processes and procedures in place that ease the transition when a CIO moves on.

There were differences on this point, too.

"I would recommend term appointments of six-to-12 years," said Paul Brubaker, former deputy Defense Department CIO who's now executive VP and chief marketing officer for contractor SI International Inc. Former EPA CIO Debra Stouffer, now VP of strategic-consulting services at DigitalNet, testified that term appointments should be considered to help mitigate the problem of CIO turnover.

Treasury CIO Ira Hobbs suggested that federal agencies more widely create the role of deputy CIO to smooth over transitions. During his seven years as deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department, Hobbs served under three different CIOs.

All said and done, the federal CIO position is demanding, and its financial rewards are overshadowed by those of comparable positions in the private sector. "One of the primary responsibilities of any [federal] CIO is to understand the legislative and statutory requirements for an agency to be successful," said Steven Cooper, Homeland Security Department CIO.

Still, other IT professionals come to the public sector to become agents of change. Long-time Accenture consultant Vance Hitch became the Justice Department's CIO in April 2002. In the wake of Sept. 9, 2001, Hitch said, "I came to the public sector to make something happen, to help increase national security."

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