by Kenneth Corbin

Federal CIOs Fret Over Budget Pressures, IT Talent and Cybersecurity

May 02, 20131 min

TechAmerica's annual survey of federal CIOs reveals anxieties over chronic fiscal constraints and lack of budget authority. But there's more: Add security threats and challenges of recruiting and retaining top talent to the list of CIO concerns.

WASHINGTON–CIOs in the federal government are feeling squeezed. Increasingly expected to do more with less, agency CIOs polled in a new survey from TechAmerica identify the budget as their chief concern, with worries about human capital and cybersecurity following closely behind.

Federal CIOs

The 28 percent of respondents who say they are most worried about the budget report having to channel a large portion of their funding to support day-to-day operations.

That crunch has driven CIOs toward incremental investments in services, rather than making major capital expenditures toward a wholesale overhaul of their operations. As a result, CIOs have been laboring to keep outdated systems in use instead of moving forward with long-overdue IT upgrades.

“We should have moved off of legacy systems five years ago but we don’t have the money to modernize the way our constituents want,” one respondent said.

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The survey respondents say that some 76 percent of IT spending is currently allocated toward operations, maintenance and infrastructure.

IT Optimism Rears Its Head

Dave McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration, points out that the perennial budget pressures CIOs face can also carry a silver lining. Over the last several budget cycles–stressful as they have been with funding coming through stopgap continuing resolutions–agency personnel have been forced to take a hard look at where they are spending money and weed out obsolete or underperforming activities.

“When budgets are tight, you have to get really serious about what you’re spending money on,” McClure says. “I think that’s a healthy exercise to go through, because every year if you get your budget you don’t ask yourself those questions.”

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Indeed, many CIOs are coming to understand the “downward pressure on budgets” as the new normal in Washington, according to George DelPrete, principal at Grant Thornton, the firm that sponsored the TechAmerica survey.

“CIOs are resigned to that fact,” DelPrete says. “The budgetary situation has really worked to help them find new ways to save and invest.”

Many CIOs surveyed report having embarked on tech-related initiatives driven by their budget constarints, such as standardizing PC configurations, moving toward shared services, conducting more Webniars and equipping staff with lower-cost tablets instead of laptops. Some have also felt compelled to make tough cuts like scaling back the hours of operation of the agency support desk.

[Related: IT Budgets, Cybersecurity Top Federal CIO Concerns]

But many of the CIOs polled report that they have little control over the IT budget of their agency or department, a source of frustration for respondents who feel like they’re fighting with a hand tied behind their back as they envision new tech initiatives but don’t control the purse strings.

“Most CIOs don’t believe they can be responsible for how agencies invest in IT projects if they don’t control the IT budget,” DelPrete says. “In some departments the amount of IT spending they control is as low as 1 percent, so it’s hard to make them accountable for that.”

Competition Tough for IT Talent

CIOs in the government are also struggling with workforce issues, particularly when it comes to recruiting and retaining top IT talent, for which they compete with private-sector firms that often pay more and can offer a faster on-boarding process.

Twenty-one percent of CIOs surveyed rank human capital as their chief concern, pointing to the fact that many older employees are opting for retirement rather than continue on in the federal government where pay has been frozen and further cuts seem likely. Many CIOs could also do without the tendency of some members of Congress to denigrate government workers over the course of budgeting debates.

“The security of that government job isn’t quite the same as it used to be given all the rhetoric on Capitol Hill, so this is putting a lot of pressure on CIOs,” DelPrete says. “A number of CIOs are losing staff to private-sector jobs.”

Close behind human capital on the list of CIO worries is cybersecurity, which 19 percent of respondents named as their primary concern.

CIOs report that a shortage of qualified workers trained in cybersecurity is one of the biggest challenges in that area. At the same time, the administration and many influential members of Congress have identified cybersecurity as a major national security concern, and as a result programs to shore up IT defenses could actually be in line for funding increases.

CIOs are also increasingly worried about insider threats that, though smaller in number, can be more severe than external risks. Survey respondents also report that they have been reaching out to their counterparts in the private sector to develop a more effective response to cyber threats.

“Cybersecurity challenges are continuing to grow, but CIOs are very focused on this. It’s a top priority,” DelPrete says.

And There’s Mobile and BYOD

Among the numerous other tasks they are juggling, federal CIOs are also pressing ahead with the development of mobility strategies, a push that comes in response to the digital government strategy the Obama administration released a year ago, placing a heavy emphasis on mobilizing the workforce.

Many agencies are working on new mobile device management projects, and advancing technologies to “containerize” data on a phone, partitioning sensitive enterprise information from other content on the device.

BYOD remains top of mind among agency CIOs, with 48 percent reporting that they have a policy in place for employees to use their personal equipment at work, with many more looking seriously at enacting their own framework for BYOD.

CIOs report that their efforts to bring new mobile devices and applications into the workforce are slowed by the same forces that weigh on the larger IT operation–namely tight budgets and talent shortages.

“They’re making some great strides in this area, but there are definitely some challenges to work through,” DelPrete says. “They need expertise in mobility development, but also money to invest.”

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.