3 Reasons We Don't Need Federal CIOs - InformationWeek

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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.

solutions. Programs with money have little pressure to economize; programs without money are left struggling to find the resources to perform their jobs. The organization is polarized into the "haves" and the "have-nots." They believe that IT security is a CIO problem, not a mission problem. They will not understand the words that are coming out of the mouth of the CIO. They will spend more on IT than their peers and get less value.

When we consider the proliferation of duplicate and redundant infrastructure, it's clear that the words coming out of the mouths of CIOs sound more like, "blah, blah, blah." The agency thus has the infrastructure they deserve and the CIO they need -- none.

3. Federal CIOs are not empowered to make strategic decisions about mission-related IT
Being a federal CIO in Washington, D.C. means that you are put on a pedestal and treated like a demigod. You are an in-demand speaker who is received affectionately and with applause. You are sought out for sound-bites by journalists with deadlines. You and the pantheon of others preceding and following you are charming, smart, and savvy. The attention and praise is intoxicating.

Then you sober up and go back to the federal C-suite.

Sure, you have a seat at the table, but you're treated like a child who has to sit with the adults because the kids' table is full. You are to be seen and not heard -- and by all means, don't interrupt the adults while they are talking.

This is the source of job dissatisfaction and frustration quietly tolerated in the federal CIO community. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) acknowledges in GAO-11-634 Federal Chief Information Officers: Opportunities Exist to Improve Role in Information Technology Management that this frustration leads to high stress levels and job turnover.

Certainly CIOs have gotten a lot of "help" from both the Executive branch (e.g., OMB M-11-29 Chief Information Officer Authorities) and the Legislative branch (e.g., the Clinger-Cohen Act and its sequel, the Federal Information Technology Reform Act). However, this "help" consistently fails to get to the root cause of chronic federal problems.

CIOs lack the authority they need budgetarily, politically, and organizationally. They lack the necessary resources and workforce. Unless the root cause of this problem is unearthed and resolved, sitting CIOs are only marginally more effective than no CIO at all.

How do we get out of this mess?
Maybe the problem is too difficult to solve -- but it's worth trying to find ways to improve the situation and enable more effective CIOs throughout government.

It's time for "thoughtful compliance" at OMB, acknowledging that the government is not a single enterprise. Nor are we thousands of enterprises -- the truth lies somewhere in between. Finding that sweet spot will require more thoughtful mission-inspired consideration.

Next, we need more IT-savvy departmental leadership in both the political and career ranks of the executive echelons. Consistent with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) specifications, this senior executive has a strong business acumen and keeps up-to-date on technological developments. Makes effective use of technology to achieve results. Ensures access to and security of technology systems. An agency with IT-savvy leaders and a business-savvy CIO would be extremely successful.

Finally, it may be too much to ask that the industry media and government industry organizations balance the need to attract readers and members with making false idols out of CIOs. However, it will take a community -- Congress, OMB, Agency heads, media, and industry organizations, along with CIOs who are highly emotionally intelligent, humble, business-savvy, and influential to truly make a difference.

InformationWeek's June Must Reads is a compendium of our best recent coverage of big data. Find out one CIO's take on what's driving big data, key points on platform considerations, why a recent White House report on the topic has earned praise and skepticism, and much more.

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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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.
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
7/23/2014 | 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?
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.
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.
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!

 
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.
mshimamoto968
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50%
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.
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.  
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?
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