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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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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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