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Homeland Security CIO Must Build Authority

Former Agriculture Department tech chief takes over during a time of change
President Bush last week tapped Agriculture Department CIO Scott Charbo for the top IT position at the Department of Homeland Security, a job rife with organizational and technological challenges.

"One of the key things out of the gate is the ability to navigate throughout that organization and the many directorates," says David Powner, the Government Accountability Office's director for IT manage- ment issues. The ability to build partnerships and relationships with the leaders of Homeland Security's key initiatives, in- cluding US-Visit and Secure Flight, is critical, he says. "The other big issue is building the authority of the CIO position within the department."

Charbo replaces Homeland Security's first CIO, Steve Cooper, who resigned in April and became CIO at the American Red Cross. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, on the job only four months himself, might consider changing Charbo's position on the department's organizational chart. Federal law requires department CIOs to report to their agencies' chief executives, but the Bush administration hasn't required Homeland Security to do so. Cooper reported to the undersecretary for management, three rungs below the secretary.

During his tenure, Cooper said the post should report to the secretary. He didn't believe his work was hampered by not doing so because of his close relationship with former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Deputy Secretary James Loy. But future CIOs shouldn't have to depend on personal relationships to gain access to the department leaders, Cooper said. The Government Accountability Office and Homeland Security's inspector general have called for elevating the department's CIO.

Charbo, who wasn't available to comment last week, has been Agriculture's CIO for nearly three years, responsible for more than 4,000 IT professionals and $1.7 billion in physical assets. He previously served as the director of Agriculture's Office of Business and Program Integration. Before joining the government, Charbo was president of mPower3 Inc., an Internet-based agricultural-information system owned by ConAgra Foods Co.

A big test for Charbo will be his ability to collaborate, not just with the 22 agencies that comprise Homeland Security, but with state and local governments and law enforcement as well as the private sector, says James Flyzik, a partner at consulting firm Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik and Associates and a former Treasury Department CIO. "It's a unique challenge to find ways to work with all of these groups."

Charbo got practice collaborating with different cultures at the Agriculture Department. "A lot of this will carry over to Homeland Security, although it will be upped by a factor of five," Flyzik says. Charbo's experience as a federal CIO probably gives him an advantage over a CIO like Cooper, who came to the government from the private sector, Flyzik says.

At the time he left Homeland Security, Cooper speculated that Homeland Security would give up some functions not involved in its core responsibility to combat terrorism and transfer them to other departments. "You'll see an organizational restructuring, which isn't a negative thing. It's built on learning; it's built on the maturation of the department," Cooper said.

Functions that could be moved to other departments, Cooper says, include non-counterterrorism research and development in criminal justice or defense IT. Looking at technology solely used for criminal justice and law enforcement, Cooper said, "one could at least put on the table for discussion that it might more effectively belong in the Department of Justice."

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