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6/28/2011
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Social Security Administration Shakes Up CIO Office

Commissioner reorganizes IT staff and spreads authority between several offices, counter to White House encouragement to centralize IT leadership.

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While a number of federal agencies are moving toward more centralized lines of IT authority under the CIO, the Social Security Administration appears to be headed in the other direction. Last Friday it broke up much of the CIO organization and scattered its authority across several offices.

Social Security commissioner Michael Astrue, in a memo to senior staff, laid out numerous organizational changes and reassignments of officials in a move he said aimed "to maximize [Social Security's] efficiency during these lean budget times." The fiscal 2011 budget slashed the agency's annual IT budget by $300 million, and the agency has put numerous austerity measures into place over the past year, including a hiring freeze, as it anticipates lean budgets into the foreseeable future.

The shakeup also comes as the agency faces the end of life for its primary data center. Numerous decades-old mainframe applications were to get overhauls as part of stimulus funding for the data center, but that has been taken away. The agency has also been working to provide more online services to citizens, but the budget crunch has stalled efforts to overhaul online retirement benefits services.

While Social Security CIO Frank Baitman and the CIO's organization will remain, they will do so with a significantly trimmed role, and without a series of key deputies who have moved to other organizations or have left the agency.

In recent years, the Social Security Administration has had fractured lines of authority for IT spending and operations between the agency's Office of the CIO and Office of Systems, which sit at the same level in the agency hierarchy. The CIO's office was created only about 10 years ago for IT governance purposes, to oversee IT policy, architecture, and investment planning. Contractors and former high-ranking IT officials have acknowledged that, for much of that time, the organization struggled to gain traction and overcome cultural resistance to its authority.

Under the split system, the CIO had policy and governance responsibility over things like enterprise architecture and IT security, as well as responsibility for managing the agency's IT investment processes. Baitman had started up several new offices at the agency as well, including the Office of Vision and Strategy, the Office of Innovation, and the Office of Open Government. The separate Office of Systems, meanwhile, run by deputy commissioner Kelly Croft, was responsible for the operational side of IT, including running the agency's data centers and key IT systems.

Now, however, many of the CIO's functions have been splintered off. The CIO's Offices of Innovation and Investment Management moved to the Office of Systems, as did much of the Office of Vision and Strategy. Much of the Office of Open Government moved to the agency's Office of Communications, and a major authentication project moved to the agency's operations arm.

Senior IT leadership was jostled as well. Former deputy CIO Greg Pace moved to the Office of the Commissioner in an advisory capacity. Former associate CIOs Lester Diamond, who headed up the Office of Investment Management, and Karen Palm, who headed up the Office of Innovation, moved to the Office of Systems. Ephraim Feig, who headed up the Office of Vision and Strategy, left the agency.

While Social Security has just moved much of the CIO's authority elsewhere, to the Office of Systems, numerous agencies are headed in the other direction. Several agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of the Interior, have consolidated CIO authority in recent years. The Department of Health and Human Services is expected to follow in those footsteps soon as well.

While the moves do seem to centralize more IT authority under one roof, they also appear to run counter to outgoing federal CIO Vivek Kundra's 25-point plan for federal IT reform, which sought to redefine the role of agency CIOs and increase their IT spending authority. Under the plan, the White House was working to consolidate spending for commodity IT services under agency CIOs, make CIOs responsible for managing their agencies' portfolios of large IT projects, and have CIOs run TechStat IT governance sessions at their agencies.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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