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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Andre Leonard
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Andre Leonard,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/28/2014 | 2:42:16 PM
Re: Spot on article
Linda, I sense a smart, honest and intelligent woman. Please don't waste your innovation, time or talent working for government. There is a reason they are always a day late, a dollar short and always over budget. 

Andre,
LindaC873
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LindaC873,
User Rank: Strategist
7/28/2014 | 2:29:10 PM
Re: Spot on article
You are so right, @Andre.  

As a CIO at NASA, I visited the ground station for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite Systems.  This critical national infrastructure is essential for space communications -- yet, the heroes and she-roes supporting the critical capability is forced to keep it available and operational with a maintenance budget that is paultry.  

They often resort to soldering guns, duct tape, and e-Bay to provide the means to maintain this national treasure.  Every year, during the budget cycle, I ask ... why is this ok?  

I never got an answer.  But perhaps the answer is -- it's ok because it's government.
LindaC873
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LindaC873,
User Rank: Strategist
7/28/2014 | 2:17:43 PM
Re: Is the federal CIO job really this bad?
@David, if it was an exaggerations, why are we talking about FITARA?  Why wasn't Clinger-Cohen enough? What's broken and are we fixing it?
LindaC873
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LindaC873,
User Rank: Strategist
7/28/2014 | 2:11:45 PM
Re: What's the proper role of OMB?
I'm a big fan of the Open Data initiative.  I believe that it will be the source of some great innovations relative to what we can do with unfettered data.  OMB and OSTP should be commended for the positive outcomes that we see from this initiatives.  

I think the current debacle of Federal IT is not solely the fault of any one branch of the government.  I believe that the "blame" is to be shared by OMB, the legislative branch, agencies, and some CIOs themselves.  

If I could use an analogy here --

OMB wants CIOs to paint masterpieces.  Yet, they provide guidance that is akin to "paint by numbers". Sure, you'll have a painting that represents "something" but it significantly misses the mark of greatness.  Inspector Generals want to make sure the CIO Artist stays in the lines; Congress wants to restrict how much paint can be used; and agencies what CIOs to guess what picture needs to be painted.  

In the end, all you get is a bunch of paint on a canvass and a mess of Federal IT.  
mshimamoto968
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mshimamoto968,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/24/2014 | 2:49:34 PM
Re: Thank you Linda.
Linda, thank you for your commentary.  I agree with some of your comments and not with others.  First I'd like to say that the title CIO is a misnomer in my opinion.  Generally the people with the CIO title are IT architects, chief technologists, or mission support managers.  Very few are actually responsible for the development and management, other than data bases and web portals, of information.  When I was the PACOM J2 Intelligence IT architecture chief, I never considered myself as a CIO, although I did have the good fortune to be invited to the Federal CIO Summit for the last 2 years before I retired from Federal Civil Service.  The IT architecture is simply an enabler for the organization's mission, and in the case of Intelligence, it should enable what I consider to be the "vision" of Intelligence, i.e., to provide a "God's eye view and understanding" of what are and will be threats to our nation and people around the world.  So I think the 2 Gartner statements are just gobbledygook.  What the heck does "disruptive forces" mean?  Is that the negative of enabling technologies?  Should we still be using messengers on horseback to deliver hand-written correspondence?  Totally agree on your comments on compliance, enough said.  IT is not considered a strategic asset when the seniors don't see how it is a key enabler for their mission/business.  As I sat in the morning intelligence brief and staff meeting, my focus was on how IT could better enable the analysts and staff to both gain and produce better knowledge – that was key to being able to better execute the mission.  This approach resulted in both have a key voice on the staff and being tasked to support key strategic planning efforts.  "CIOs" being treated like children sitting at the "adult" table are probably just "talking IT" vice providing relevant approaches towards achieving the Director's vision, goals, and objectives.
mshimamoto968
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mshimamoto968,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/24/2014 | 2:49:23 PM
Re: Thank you Linda.
Linda, thank you for your commentary.  I agree with some of your comments and not with others.  First I'd like to say that the title CIO is a misnomer in my opinion.  Generally the people with the CIO title are IT architects, chief technologists, or mission support managers.  Very few are actually responsible for the development and management, other than data bases and web portals, of information.  When I was the PACOM J2 Intelligence IT architecture chief, I never considered myself as a CIO, although I did have the good fortune to be invited to the Federal CIO Summit for the last 2 years before I retired from Federal Civil Service.  The IT architecture is simply an enabler for the organization's mission, and in the case of Intelligence, it should enable what I consider to be the "vision" of Intelligence, i.e., to provide a "God's eye view and understanding" of what are and will be threats to our nation and people around the world.  So I think the 2 Gartner statements are just gobbledygook.  What the heck does "disruptive forces" mean?  Is that the negative of enabling technologies?  Should we still be using messengers on horseback to deliver hand-written correspondence?  Totally agree on your comments on compliance, enough said.  IT is not considered a strategic asset when the seniors don't see how it is a key enabler for their mission/business.  As I sat in the morning intelligence brief and staff meeting, my focus was on how IT could better enable the analysts and staff to both gain and produce better knowledge – that was key to being able to better execute the mission.  This approach resulted in both have a key voice on the staff and being tasked to support key strategic planning efforts.  "CIOs" being treated like children sitting at the "adult" table are probably just "talking IT" vice providing relevant approaches towards achieving the Director's vision, goals, and objectives.
Mike Nesel
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Mike Nesel,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/24/2014 | 12:16:05 PM
Thank you Linda.
Thanks for your insights Linda!   We enjoyed your visits, and wish you well in your endeavors!

 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
7/23/2014 | 4:32:28 PM
Re: Corporate vs Mission and Control (or lack of it)
@Kimberly thanks for weighing in as a vet of GovIT. The situation worries me in terms of recruiting that next gen of GovIT talent -- and we really need those cybersecurity folks.
Andre Leonard
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Andre Leonard,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/23/2014 | 1:22:47 PM
Spot on article
Linda Cureton, is to be commended for writing a very eloquent piece that exposes the shortcomings and lack of focus we see in government today. 

What we do know about government is, it follows, never leads. As such, it is always at least 20 years behind the times in everything. The term, a day late, a dolar short and in last place, could have very well been written for government.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
7/23/2014 | 10:29:35 AM
Is the federal CIO job really this bad?
Is this an exaggeration, or is the mix of responsibilities and authority really this far out of whack?
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