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Government Technologist: Give Federal CIOs The Authority They Need

It's not clear if agency CIOs have the clout and support they need to accomplish all the tasks they've been given.

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InformationWeek Government Editor John Foley The expectations on federal CIOs keep growing. Data center consolidation, open government, cloud computing, TechStat reviews, FISMA compliance, and a 25-point IT reform plan add up to a knee-buckling workload.

Are they up to the task? You bet. But the real question is whether agency CIOs have the clout and support they need to get it all done.

In a May meeting of public and private sector CIOs at the White House, hosted by federal CIO Vivek Kundra and facilitated by InformationWeek, a lengthy discussion broke out on how organizational dynamics can make or break an agency's IT strategy. It became clear that government IT execs are challenged--many stymied--by agency directors who don't care about technology, by the quick turnover of those who do care, and by dotted-line org charts that blunt their ability to drive change.

One agency CIO described his organization as "a coalition of the willing." Another said, "You can see the difference around town when CIOs have support from agency directors."

The private sector CIOs in the meeting, who had ready answers when the conversation involved IT architecture and customer service, found themselves on unfamiliar ground. "IT always starts at the top," said Rob Carter, CIO of FedEx, where CEO Fred Smith has been an unwavering proponent and driver of IT since he founded the company 40 years ago.

Carter expressed alarm that revolving-door leadership at federal agencies--whether caused by elections, military assignments, or other career moves--makes IT transformation a near-impossible task. "Your bosses change so often," Carter said. "That's terrifying, because this stuff takes a long time."

Dave Bent, CIO of United Stationers, a leading distributor of office supply products, echoed Carter's concern. "Constancy of purpose is really important," he said.

One of the government CIOs at the meeting asked Carter how he was able to cajole FedEx's business units into participating in enterprise-wide IT initiatives, such as the company's private cloud. "I've got authority," Carter said.

Government CIOs need that same level of influence, but they must be thoughtful about how they wield it. Too often, they come off as policy enforcers who crack down on the use of unauthorized devices and apps. Kundra wants to change that perception and reality, and has made redefining the role of the government CIO an objective of his IT reform plan.

Another leading private sector CIO at the White House meeting made the point that leading Web companies have "enlightened" leadership, people who understand how technology can drive innovation and change.

There's evidence of that in Washington, but we need more of it. FBI Director Robert Mueller has given CIO Chad Fulgham the support he needed to upgrade the agency's IT infrastructure and to seize control of the bureau's floundering Sentinel project from Lockheed Martin. And Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has teamed with CIO Roger Baker to pull the plug on troubled IT projects and make other, in Baker's words, "hard decisions."

Agency CIOs can get the job done, but only if their bosses have their backs.

John Foley, editor of InformationWeek Government, can be reached at

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