Getting a Seat at the Table

When asked about their biggest challenges, a group of information resource managers participating in Government Executive's 1996 IRM Roundtable spoke about the difficulties of having to do more work with fewer people and less money. Many lamented that information technology projects were not keeping pace with advancements in the private sector and that reduced funding could have detrimental effects on computer and communications infrastructures.

What a difference a year makes. The 1996 Information Technology Management Reform Act (ITMRA), which took effect in August, swiftly converted federal information technology from a technical issue to a management issue. The law-nicknamed the Clinger-Cohen Act after its congressional sponsors-mandated that agencies replace IRMs with chief information officers responsible for rationalizing IT investments across enterprises.

So instead of waxing poetic about bits and bytes, agency IT chiefs these days are talking about "capital planning," "investment portfolios," and "corporate perspectives."

Starting this year, the $26.6 billion the federal government spends on information technology-plus another $25 billion of unreported Defense Department IT spending-will be linked to agency missions and budget plans. Technology investment strategies employing activity-based costing are being devised to make the most of reengineered organizations. IT projects will compete against non-IT projects for agency dollars. Over time, performance metrics will evaluate the success of IT investment strategies and inefficient projects will be denied funding.

In many cases, the executives chosen to devise IT investment strategies are not technologists but budget and finance people. Some of the CIOs are in "acting" positions while the Office of Management and Budget evaluates them, or until permanent candidates can be recruited. Others are former senior IRMs who simply changed job titles. A few were already CIOs before chief information officers were mandated by law.

The ideal CIO, according to the Office of Management and Budget, should possess a combination of technical, financial and communications skills. John Koskinen, OMB's deputy director for management, advises CIOs to ask three "pesky" questions:

  • Should the agency be doing the work at all?
  • Could another agency or outside contractor do the work better and cheaper?
  • Is the work being performed in the most efficient manner or do processes need to be reengineered?
Helping chief information officers assess and plan IT investments are the deputy CIOs and other members of the CIO Council. The council, with Koskinen at its helm, provides a forum for sharing best practices in information technology management. Subcommittees are studying issues such as vendor relations and training.

The new CIOs and their staffs will spend a lot of time this year seeking solutions to a wide range of IT problems, such as how to locate and correct six-digit date fields in computer programs so that agency software will continue to operate in the new millennium. In addition to the Year 2000 problem, CIOs will be looking at security issues that threaten the confidentiality, integrity, reliability and availability of government information. They also will be devising ways to make most effective use of the Internet and internal intranets.

In addition to technology concerns, CIOs will be exploring the best ways to implement the ITMRA. As they set up methodologies for analyzing business processes and benchmarking progress, many CIOs also will be fighting internal power struggles at their agencies. At some organizations such as the Defense Department and NASA, program managers and IRM staff have more real control over IT spending than the CIOs. At other agencies, CIOs still have not been welcomed into policy-making circles. Several executives featured on the following pages talk about the need for CIOs to establish credibility with senior management.

"The single most important issue facing CIOs is whether they have a seat at the table," says Robert J. Guerra, CIO program chairman for the Industry Advisory Council, an association representing companies serving the government marketplace. "CIOs have to position themselves as peers of senior executives or else they'll simply have responsibility without authority and will never gain the respect they need to get the job done."

The Office of Management and Budget, in its oversight role in the ITMRA implementation, has maintained that chief information officers must have direct access to agency heads. "CIOs have an important mission, which is to demonstrate agency information needs and account for their use," says Koskinen. "To be successful, they have to be part of the senior management group that is making the decisions."

For this special report, Government Executive talked to 23 of the 27 statutorily mandated CIOs. (Some agencies were unable to participate due to timing conflicts or because they had an acting CIO who was about to be replaced.) The CIOs speak frankly about hot technologies, upcoming projects and their approaches to management.

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