Agencies urged to empower chief information officers

Federal chief information officers need to have the same level of decision-making authority their private-sector counterparts enjoy in order to provide the same kind of strong leadership, a panel of federal and private-sector experts told a House subcommittee last week.

Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, and Rep. Jim Turner, D-Tex., listened to testimony from five IT leaders about the performance of federal CIOs and how the government can learn from private industry's best practices.

The role of CIOs has greatly expanded due to the Y2K crisis, advances in technology, and the growth of e-commerce and e-government. "In the private sector, many CIOs have evolved into a chief technology officer working side-by-side with the CEO, as evidenced by the many 'dot-com' organizations," said Jim Flyzik, CIO at the Treasury Department and vice chairman of the federal CIO Council. "The public sector CIO has not yet reached this level of influence. The CIO should be positioned at the table with the CEO, COO, and CFO where he or she can work as a team with senior management."

Other witnesses also emphasized the increasingly important role of the CIO in government. "Separating technology from government programs seems impossible today," said Otto Doll, president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives.

All the witnesses agreed that federal CIOs need to be treated as major players within agencies, becoming more involved in both strategic planning and policy-making. Federal CIOs, they said, need to have clearly defined authority and the support of their agencies and the White House in order to carry their duties as leaders in information technology.

Although Horn and Turner cautioned against creating a governmentwide CIO position with Cabinet rank for fear of centralizing power in one place, both said federal CIOs should be more accountable to the White House. "A CIO at the federal level needs direct access to the President," said Turner.

Witnesses also cited problems with linking agency missions and performance measures, public information officers' lack of involvement in information management, and lower salaries and benefits than the private sector as challenges for government IT leaders.

David L. McClure, associate director of governmentwide and defense information systems at the General Accounting Office, cited the IRS, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Weather Service for their improved management of IT projects, noting that GAO has "always been in favor of federal CIOs." He also noted that the CIO Council has been working with the Office of Personnel Management to develop special pay rates for hard-to-hire IT professionals.

The 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act required agencies to reform information technology management, based largely on the successful practices of the private sector. The law required 24 Cabinet departments and major agencies to appoint CIOs who report to agency heads.

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