Top Dog

What it takes to be a champion CIO.

i n the past, federal chief information officers were treated like stray hounds nosing in for scraps at the head management table. Those days are over. The Bush administration is keenly aware of technology's promise, grooming CIOs of a different breed. Some have even become top dogs with power and influence.

The federal CIO position was created by the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act to gain control of the government's massive spending on information technology. Since 1996, the IT budget has grown. In fiscal 2002, the federal IT budget was roughly $45 billion. That figure has jumped 15.5 percent to $52 billion for fiscal 2003.

The Office of Management and Budget has tried to institutionalize IT management even further by making electronic government one of the five priorities in the president's management agenda. The Information Technology Association of America's 12th annual survey of federal CIOs reveals a singular focus on e-government. According to the survey, federal CIOs are committed to strengthening cybersecurity, crossing agency and organizational boundaries to share information, sanitizing federal Web sites to thwart terrorists who might use them, and building faster and more reliable telecommunications infrastructures. CIOs find themselves pulled in different directions as they work to fix the cybersecurity problems exposed by the 2000 Government Information Security Reform Act (which requires agencies and their inspectors general to audit information security practices) and comply with the 1998 Government Paperwork Elimination Act (which requires agencies to move paper processes to the Web by October 2003).

"Being a CIO is a really big job," says Dave Wennergren, the Navy's deputy CIO for enterprise integration and security. "In the 21st century, technology is very complex and is everywhere." As the job has grown, the demands have stretched the talents of even the best CIOs. To turn the popular axiom on its head, old dogs not only can learn new tricks-they must. With the complex initiatives set out in the Bush administration's mammoth fiscal 2003 IT budget, even veteran CIOs need to brush up on their management skills. "The CIO is a very high profile job right now," says Chris Hoenig, director for strategic issues at the General Accounting Office. He says President Bush and the American people expect technology to be the key to winning the war on terror. All this lands on CIOs and their organizations, right on the heels of having to adjust to the shift in administrations.

Many experts note a sea change in Washington. They say the Bush administration has brought in a savvy group of political appointees who are accustomed to working with CIOs in the private sector, where the position has real power and influence. Air Force CIO John Gilligan says Bush's appointees have clear expectations of what the CIO's role should be-expectations he finds refreshing. "I am quite pleased and surprised," he says.

The question is: Are federal CIOs prepared to deliver the goods to executives at a time when the nation's focus on security involves technology at every level of government and the private sector? "Now there's no excuse," says Alan Balutis, former deputy CIO at the Commerce Department. He now heads the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils and is executive director of its Industry Advisory Council. "Most CIOs will tell you they relish this opportunity," he says. So, to help these top dogs make the most of their opportunity, Government Executive has compiled 10 tips on how to become a champion CIO.

Communication The current crop of agency heads expect their CIOs to be business leaders, experts say, not those surly technologists of the past with bulging pocket protectors. They must be visionaries who can communicate with their superiors and underlings.

"To be good a communicator, you have to be a teacher and educator," says George Molaski, former CIO at the Transportation Department. "Typically, your peer group is not as knowledgeable about technology as you are, and you have to be able to teach them without overwhelming them. As a leader you create a vision not only for the CIO's office, but also for the whole organization. This requires the CIO to build consensus and get people to buy into that vision."

Business Acumen

The days of technology for technology's sake are over. So too are the days of CIOs who single-handedly shoved unwanted IT solutions down their agencies' throats. "To be successful, CIOs have to use a combination of business acumen and technology awareness," says Greg Pellegrino, a partner and global e-government leader with Deloitte Consulting in Boston. So in addition to being stalwart visionaries, CIOs must be good listeners.

Good CIOs immerse themselves in every nuance of how their agencies run. "A CIO must understand every aspect of the enterprise," says Wennergren. He says CIOs must comprehend current and forthcoming technologies and recognize how they can be used in their organizations.

Power From Above

CIOs must be able to win over key constituents, from Cabinet secretaries down to middle managers.

"The first and single most important asset for a CIO is to have the support of the boss," says Roger Baker, former CIO at Commerce and now executive vice president for telecommunications and information assurance at CACI International Inc., a systems integrator in Arlington, Va. "The most important part of the job is being a key part of the secretary's team."

But there's a twist. By becoming a servant to their leaders' vision and a trusted adviser, CIOs can derive their power from above. CIOs have to remember they are acting on behalf of the head of the agency, says Air Force CIO John Gilligan. "Whatever a CIO does has to be in sync with where leadership wants to go," he says. Then a CIO can effectively communicate that vision to mid-level executives and staffers.

Outside Help

A valuable CIO can work across organizational boundaries.

Because the Sept. 11 attacks exposed deficiencies in how agencies share information, the Bush administration is requiring executives to look outside their fiefdoms to see who they can help and who can help them. Data is power, and sharing it is difficult in government. CIOs must be the bridges to sources of vital information.

"These days, CIOs have to be able to get things done across boundaries," Hoenig says, adding that CIOs might have to produce results from workers outside their agencies, possibly in the private sector. Hoenig calls this industry leadership.

That is the case for Ron Miller, who recently became CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Miller says the agency had been focused on internal issues as it developed the groundbreaking National Emergency Management Information System. But new homeland security responsibilities have forced FEMA to look outside its organization to meet its mission, Miller says. His role, as CIO, is to facilitate that process with the right mix of leadership and technology.

If Mark Forman, OMB's associate director for information technology and e-government, gets his way, the federal government will build more systems that many agencies can use at once-eliminating fiefdoms and forcing agencies to share and share alike.

Cultural Change

A good CIO understands how technology breeds change.

New technology changes how organizations operate. Simple changes can have profound effects on the average worker, so it is not hard to imagine the stress massive new software systems can put on an entire organization. CIOs must remember that resistance to change can be their downfall.

"As CIO, your primary job is leading change," Wennergren says. But, he says, so much of change is cultural. "Ten percent of change is about technology while 90 percent is about culture."

This comes back to communication and expressing the will of senior leaders. Effective CIOs must be people of action who can get measurable results, not passive bystanders, Pellegrino says. Successful CIOs in the private sector have become major transformational figures by changing the way their companies do business, Balutis notes. They are tacticians, deliverers and relationship-builders, he says.

One of the classic examples of technology enabling change in the federal government is the transformation of the U.S. Mint. CIO Jackie Fletcher and John Mitchell, the Mint's deputy director, improved operations and generated enthusiasm among employees by launching an online superstore to sell the agency's products.


A first-rate CIO is a strategist, a forward thinker, a seer.

Experts say strategy is the main job of most federal CIOs. Following day-to-day IT operations is typically the domain of the deputy CIO. But now, with so much budget authority, CIOs must keep one eye on business and another on the future. One way is to fit all short- and long-range IT projects into an overall plan, or enterprise architecture.

"Capital planning and building enterprise architectures are the classic jobs that every CIO should know how to do," Hoenig says. CIOs must justify each investment in technology by ensuring it fits into the agency's long-term IT plan. Jan Popkin, CEO of Popkin Software, a New York-based software developer that creates the technology CIOs use to track IT investments, says the Treasury and Defense departments have the most fully developed enterprise architectures.

Still, thousands of IT systems get implemented every year that aren't well-designed and don't fit into agencies' long-term plans, Hoenig says. A CIO who lacks the skills required to build a strategy for IT activities should hire a chief architect who can rationalize all the agency's IT systems and plan for new ones, Hoenig says. Such a position can quickly become one of the most important in a CIO's organization.

Capital Planning

The fiscal 2003 budget hands CIOs more authority than ever.

By tying capital planning to the budget process, OMB has demonstrated that IT projects without strong business cases will not be funded. "Most of these CIOs have been saying for years in their own agencies that they need controls that link budget decisions to sound business cases," Balutis says. "They've said the federal government needs better performance metrics and an overall architecture."

The budget process now holds senior executives' feet to the fire when it comes to requesting money for technology purchases. With Mark Forman, Balutis says, CIOs have an official at OMB who is forcing secretaries and deputy secretaries to pay attention to capital planning, long-term IT strategy and information security if they are to get the funds they request. And because these three elements are at the core of a CIO's job, Balutis says OMB has "greatly strengthened the hand of CIOs."

Security Sense

Cybersecurity and information sharing are key concerns for every CIO.

In years past, organizations have been slow to secure their IT systems and networks because of funding shortfalls and the sheer difficulty of the task. Information sharing is inhibited mainly by closed cultures at agencies and a segregated appropriations process that only nominally acknowledges the value of interagency issues.

The president has made cybersecurity and information sharing top priorities in the homeland security effort. "What's different is that CIOs are being given the authority, the backing and, in many cases, the funding to actually accomplish these missions," Balutis says. CIOs should designate certain employees to manage a core unit of cybersecurity professionals to monitor security tools and conduct continual vulnerability assessments. Systems administrators have too big a job fighting the day-to-day fires that flare up within every enterprise to adequately address cybersecurity.

By focusing on relationships with executives at other agencies, CIOs can go a long way toward fusing information from numerous organizations facing common challenges.

Best Practices

CIOs must be willing to look to the private sector for answers and inspiration. Public sector CIOs view the private sector with fascination. They look at how company CIOs operate without the binding rules of bureaucracy and wonder, "Could that work in my shop?" Navy Deputy CIO Dave Wennergren spends a good amount of time talking with private sector CIOs to find out what is important to them. From them he learns how the newest technologies fit into smooth-running organizations, and gets a sense of how the Navy can innovate.


Performance and measurable results are the ultimate yardstick for good CIOs. Leading organizations "strive to understand and measure what drives and affects their businesses and how best to evaluate results," according to GAO's management tome, "Maximizing the Success of Chief Information Officers." Good CIOs use this information to improve efficiency and rationalize new initiatives.

But sometimes it is not easy being a supercharged CIO working in a slow-moving bureaucracy that is shackled by congressional legislation. To be effective in this environment, top CIOs must be fueled by a passion for government and technology.

"As a CIO, you've got to have passion for public service, good government and technology," Molaski says. "If you don't have the passion for bringing those three things together and aren't committed to helping government perform more effectively, then you are in there for the wrong reason."

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