WASHINGTON -- As Congress appears poised to pass legislation that would consolidate the organization of federal IT personnel and expand CIO authorities, top government tech executives are urging closer coordination between department and agency CIOs and the business leaders in those groups.
Paul Brubaker, the Defense Department's director of planning and performance management, argued at a government IT conference yesterday that too many federal CIOs have become removed from the high-level, strategic activities of their agencies, relegated instead to a more functionary status.
"We seem to be veering back toward the operational type role, and I think that's a bit of an issue," Brubaker said.
Brubaker recalled his work as a congressional staffer in the 1990s when he helped draft the Clinger-Cohen Act, a major set of federal IT reforms that, among other things, mandated that large agencies and departments designate a CIO to oversee the technology operations.
Government CIOs Need to Get Back to Business
As the architects of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act envisioned it, the ideal CIO would be "somebody who was supposed to be well-versed in business operations. It was not a technology-centric role. It was really about what can be done to measurably improve mission performance," Brubaker said. "I'd really like to see us get back to that level of focus for the CIOs."
The role of the federal CIO has been a recurring subject of debate as departments and agencies across the government have embarked on a number of major IT initiatives, including cloud computing, consolidating data centers and adopting new mobile technologies.
Steven VanRoekel, the CIO of the federal government, has argued that government CIOs need more authority to manage the various IT projects underway at their agencies.
Too often, VanRoekel has said, bureaus and subagencies -- many with their own CIO -- run their technology operations in siloes with little collaboration with other parts of the agency or department.
Congress Looks to Improve IT Efficiency
Lawmakers sympathetic to those concerns have drafted legislation that aims to consolidate the CIO structure and implement an array of reforms to improve the efficiency of the roughly $80 billion federal IT apparatus.
The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which the House of Representatives passed in June, would mandate that major agencies and departments only have one CIO, who would be a presidential appointee or designee.
In addition to dispensing with the lower-level CIO positions (more than 200 people in the federal government currently hold that title), FITARA would give CIOs new authorities over their IT budgets and personnel, and codify an organizational structure whereby the CIO would directly report to the agency head.
In theory, that organizational restructuring would bring the IT department closer in line with the business objectives of the agency, a central focus of some of the reforms already underway at the Department of Homeland Security, according to Keith Trippie, executive director of DHS' Enterprise Development Office.
"IT at the department is an intrinsic mission enabler in the organization," Trippie said.
When the Senate returns to session next week it is expected to renew consideration of the defense funding bill to which FITARA is attached as an amendment. The House also passed the measure as part of a defense bill, so passage in the Senate would send the legislation to the president's desk.
Apart from the provisions concerning individual CIOs, FITARA would broaden the role of the CIO Council to expand oversight of agencies' IT portfolios and encourage the development of government-wide standards and practices.
The bill would also codify guidelines for the federal CIO and individual agencies regarding their efforts to consolidate data centers, including requirements to report on server utilization and energy and cost savings.
FITARA includes several additional provisions aimed at eliminating duplication and waste form the federal IT budget. The bill directs the Office of Management and Budget to conduct an inventory of the IT assets of the federal government, focusing in particular on software licenses. The CIO Council would be tasked with developing government-wide guidelines for implementing cloud technologies.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @kecorb. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.