by Kenneth Corbin

Federal CIOs Squeezed by Budgets, Executive Buy-in

News Analysis
Apr 21, 20145 mins

Technology chiefs in the federal government say they struggle with their role within their departments and agencies. A bill passed in the House and pending in the Senate could give federal CIOs more authority, though.

WASHINGTON — Pity the federal CIO.

Nearly two decades after the role of agency CIO was codified in the Clinger-Cohen Act, the individuals who occupy those positions struggle with an ever-growing thicket of regulations, checks on their budgeting authority and, often, a risk-averse culture that tilts in favor of the status quo.

Add to that list the difficulty of getting top agency leadership to buy in to the notion that IT can drive the mission, and too many CIOs are effectively marginalized within their organizations, according to Paul Brubaker, director of planning and performance management at the Department of Defense.

Some CIOs have succeeded in implementing financial reforms in their agencies, Brubaker says, “but it’s getting harder and harder as we burden the system with additional regulation.”

[ Feature: Federal CIOs Fret Over Budget Pressures, IT Talent and Cybersecurity ]

Brubaker adds: “It’s just a hard job — and then we dilute the responsibility with the proliferation of the C-level executives.” Then add the coup de grace, he says: “Agency heads and deputy secretaries who really don’t understand it, and don’t understand the role and how they fit into the context of the bigger management picture.”

As a congressional staffer, Brubaker played a key role in drafting the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act. In many ways, the vision of that bill — to establish the CIO as a “focal point” within the agency and to “make sure the government was keeping up with the advances in technology” to improve business processes — hasn’t been realized.

New Legislation Should Give Federal CIOs More Authority

The concerns about the role of the CIO that Brubaker and other government IT leaders expressed at a luncheon event late last week come as lawmakers have been working to effect what could be the most significant overhaul of the federal technology operations since Clinger-Cohen.

Earlier this year, the House approved the Federal Information Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, which would have a major impact on the role of the federal CIO.

Among many other provisions, that bill would require that agencies strengthen the role of their top CIO, vesting the position with more budgeting and personnel authorities, and establishing a reporting structure that would put the CIO directly under the department head or commissioner. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.

One central challenges FITARA aims to address is the balkanization of IT oversight. This has resulted from the growth of what are known as component-level CIOs, who spearhead tech operations within the sub-agencies or bureaus that often function as siloes within the larger department or agency.

By consolidating budgeting and other authorities under a single CIO, the bill seeks to create a centralized point of accountability for IT within each organization, in a sense picking up where Clinger-Cohen left off.

[ Analysis: Federal IT Efforts Slowed by Weak CIO Roles, Uneven Reporting ]

In the meantime, federal insiders acknowledge that the role of the CIO in practice varies widely from department to department across the government, which collectively spends on the order of $80 billion on IT each year.

Federal CIO Role Equal Parts ‘Digital Diplomat’ and ‘Human Flak Jacket’

To a great extent, the CIO’s responsibilities and authorities are a product of the culture of the department or agency, and that starts at the top, says Simon Szykman, CIO at the Department of Commerce. “The answer to how you matter really comes down to senior leadership. I think the CIO matters as much or as little the deputy secretary and secretary and CFO think the CIO matters.”

On budgeting issues, Szykman takes a middle road. Consolidating purchasing power with the agency CIO makes sense for commodity IT. After all, it’s hard to justify running different email systems across a dozen different organizations within a large department like Commerce.

At the same time, some of the work that units like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration do is so specialized that it’s only proper for the CIOs of those groups to make the call about more sophisticated systems.

At the Federal Communications Commission, CIO David Bray talks colorfully about the two hats that he wears. “I tell people my role is to be digital diplomat and human flak jacket,” Bray says.

[ Feature: Federal CIOs Need Authority to Improve IT Efficiency ]

Bray says that those twin roles involve, on the one hand, making the business case for IT initiatives to senior leadership in an effort to secure the executive buy-in that’s so critical in public and private-sector organizations alike. Then, too, he stresses the importance of empowering his team to tinker and experiment, aiming for a climate of iterative innovation that, of necessity, will mean that some projects don’t pan out.

In an environment as famously risk-averse as the federal government, that means providing cover for members of the tech team so they can feel confident enough to innovate without worrying about the fallout.

“It’s also thinking about what we can do in terms of taking risks,” Bray says. “We need to take risks because technology is changing so fast that, if [you] don’t take risks, you’re going to immediately be out of date. That’s the human flak jacket mode.”

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.