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.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing