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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.

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.

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."


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