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Federal CIOs squeezed by budgets, executive buy-in

Kenneth Corbin | April 22, 2014
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.

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."

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.


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