Government // Leadership
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7/22/2014
09:06 AM
Linda Cureton
Linda Cureton
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3 Reasons We Don't Need Federal CIOs

Former NASA CIO muses on the futility of the federal CIO role -- and offers insight on how it needs to change.

There's no shortage of advice on how to improve the lot of CIOs in the federal government. We centralize, reorganize, and agonize over memos, orders, legislation, and other well-meaning corrective actions. But with all these efforts -- and the marginal success that follows -- perhaps we should consider whether or not the federal government even needs CIOs. Here are three points to consider:

1. The federal enterprise architecture program is an utter failure
I'm a strong advocate in the use of enterprise architecture (EA) as a critical planning tool. But the Federal implementation makes this difficult and often impossible.

According to research and advisory company Gartner, enterprise architecture is defined as "a discipline for proactively and holistically leading enterprise responses to disruptive forces by identifying and analyzing the execution of change toward desired business vision and outcomes."

[Agencies are increasingly adopting social technologies and open standards. Read Open And Social: New Path For Government Agencies.]

Gartner goes on to explain that EA delivers value by "presenting business and IT leaders with signature-ready recommendations for adjusting policies and projects to achieve target business outcomes that capitalize on relevant business disruptions." Just in case you overlooked it -- "signature-ready recommendations?" How can something with this much potential benefit be so bad?

Sisyphys, painting by Titian (Source: Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain, via Wikipedia)
Sisyphys, painting by Titian
(Source: Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain,
via Wikipedia)

First, there is no "enterprise." Cabinet-level departments are polylithic organizations with diverse policies, missions, and business challenges. To manage the Executive branch -- or even a large complex agency like the Department of Homeland Security -- as a single enterprise is an exercise in futility. Perhaps it's the mathematician in me that demands we reduce complexity to problems we can solve, and then move forward.

The Federal EA drives us to increase the complexity of problems to some hypothetical place where one size fits all and we are able to find commonality. That's a dream. Expending resources in the attempt to achieve it is not money well spent.

Second, EA is given a bad name because there are too many pompous framework-spouting propeller-heads who have lost sight of the agency missions and the need for the planning discipline. Agencies don't need to spend millions on volumes of fluff; all they need is a mission-savvy CIO leader with an hour of time inspired by two fingers of bourbon neat who can articulate the mission and the principles that are needed to guide technical decision-making. From this point, a strategy-driven mission-enabling EA is born.

Finally, CIOs have been constantly pressured by compliance requirements from both the Executive and Legislative branches of our government. The pressure causes this valuable planning process to be reduced to a worthless compliance exercise. As a CIO, I found myself faced with making the decision to take a "D+" in compliance so I would have enough money to plan our data center consolidation.

If federal CIOs are to be valuable business leaders in their agencies, they need to get beyond the groupthink of taxonomies, reference models, TOGAF, and DoDAF. Instead, they must use the language of their mission and lead their enterprise toward outcomes that will help achieve mission success rather than mindless compliance.

2. IT is not really considered a strategic asset
The notion that IT is a strategic asset is laughable to many agency executives. Many of them view IT as a tool -- like a file cabinet or a stapler, albeit expensive ones. I had one agency C-suite leader compare IT to toilets -- just necessary infrastructure, nothing special.

When IT is viewed more tactically, specialized "tools" promulgate across the organization. This leads to custom websites, data centers, "boutique" applications, and other point technology

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Linda Cureton is the former CIO of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is now CEO of Muse Technologies, Inc., specializing in IT transformation. Her company helps organizations develop strong leadership, technology solutions, and program management ... View Full Bio
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KimberlyC025
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KimberlyC025,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/22/2014 | 12:34:37 PM
Corporate vs Mission and Control (or lack of it)
Bravo! Loved the article. I work for DOD and detest the corporatization of the Federal Enterprise as a whole- but especially for Enterprise Architecture. The love affair with processes takes away innovation, expertise, and agility. The insistence on running the Federal structure as a business unfortunately does not come with a group of shareholders - and sometimes a Board- that holds anyone accountable. So what you get are a lot of demands shoved into a business paradigm that holds no one accountable (except for the beleaguered CIO) and does not adapt to mission changes quickly. The Federal CIO cannot write a check for new equipment but must wait a year for money to fall from the sky in the June/July timeframe (when procurements happen pre Oct 1 new fiscal year). The Federal CIO has a full catchers mitt of all the requirements and none of the decisionmaking to assure success. The Federal CIO in underpaid and put in a pickle- caught between a rock and hard place. Suggest letting the Federal Government go back to empowered departments that do specific things, hire competent people (vice giving them workflows as a bible) and have higher-level managers make decsions and be held accountable for those decisions. There are 2 kinds of managers- umbrellas and funnels. The Federal CIO needs an umbrella and needs to be an umbrella for his/her organization.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
7/22/2014 | 9:56:33 AM
What's the proper role of OMB?
From the outside, it seems the OMB and the White House have made some positive steps with open data initiatives, etc. Is that just window dressing, from your POV? What is the proper role of the OMB in changing how IT is managed? I had the impression it was struggling to exert any central control -- but you seem to suggest that it's exerting too much.
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