For government CIOs, accountability comes without authority

Federal CIO Suzette Kent sees progress for federal CIOs, but says more needs to be done to make tech leaders full-fledged partners with top agency brass.

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WASHINGTON — Government CIOs may shoulder more responsibility than ever before, but they still struggle with the authority they need to executive their jobs, according to Suzette Kent, CIO of the federal government.

In a keynote address at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Kent observed that federal CIOs have assumed an unprecedented accountability for the successful deployment of IT projects at their agencies, but that's only one side of the balance sheet.

Memos from the Office of Management and Budget and acts of Congress "recently have mandated that the CIO is accountable, and in some of the legislation it specifically says responsibility for failure," Kent said.

"So the accountability is there, but the second part of the equation is authority, and we're still working on that," she said. "We're still working on empowering CIOs with the full authority to effect the outcomes for which we're holding them accountable."

Legislation like the landmark 2014 FITARA bill included language meant to elevate the role of CIO, but within the departments and agencies, progress on that front has been uneven.

Kent is looking for more government bodies to give their CIOs the authority to manage their own budgets and acquisitions, make hiring decisions, and — crucially, in Kent's opinion — "the opportunity to sit at the table with agency and government leadership, to collaborate and contribute in how we make decisions about how we're achieving mission."

"Recently — and very positively — we've seen more CIOs move to direct reporting relationships with agency leadership, but we need to continue that," Kent said. "We need to close the gap between the people who are setting the vision and the people who have to deliver on that vision — the people who are owning the tools to make that vision happen."

Kent's vision of aligning CIOs more closely with the business side of federal agencies follows from her view that the CIO can no longer be viewed as simply a technical role. Historically, CIOs were the people who kept the PCs and the network infrastructure running. "They weren't the first people you thought of around delivery of mission," she said.

"CIOs are expected not only to have technology skills, but they have to be leaders, and they have to have a broad set of management capabilities," Kent said. "In private sector, the role of the CIO has already evolved. CIOs are part of the leadership team, particularly in mature organizations and organizations where they know the technology capabilities are very critical to how they connect to their customers and how their products get out the door. That role has changed."

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