DHS boosts power of chief information officer

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's decision this week to boost the authority of the agency's chief information officer is winning praise from observers of the federal information technology scene, although some called it overdue and inadequate.

Chertoff announced the move Thursday in a speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council. He said DHS needs to have a strong information officer empowered to make decisions, control spending and ensure consistency throughout the department, which was cobbled together from 22 separate agencies in March 2003.

Chertoff said that by elevating Scott Charbo, who has served as the department's CIO since 2005, DHS will be at the forefront of fulfilling the requirements of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which established the CIO role in major federal agencies. DHS' annual technology expenditures total nearly $6 billion.

Under the new mandate, each DHS component is required to submit its IT budget to the CIO, who will make recommendations for final inclusion in the department's overall budget request. All IT acquisitions larger than $2.5 million will have to first be approved by the department's Enterprise Architecture Board and submitted to the CIO for approval.

Charbo will approve the hiring of CIOs at agencies within the department and will set and approve their job performance plans, ratings and annual award compensation.

"In a department of our size and complexity, and particularly in a department built from a lot of legacy agencies, this unification and strengthening of core management will not be easy," Chertoff said. "Some of the components will not be used to this level of centralized coordination, particularly as it relates to IT systems."

The DHS inspector general has long lobbied for strengthening the department's chief information officer. In a January 2006 audit, IG Richard Skinner said the CIO lacked the authority and influence necessary to integrate the department's information technology systems. Despite federal law, the CIO was not a member of the senior management team and lacked the power to strategically manage departmentwide technology programs and assets, the report stated.

But DHS officials had argued that elevating the position was unnecessary. In a response to the IG, department officials wrote that Charbo believed his office is "properly positioned and has the authority it needs to accomplish its mission."

Former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin said the new directive is a belated step in the right direction. But, he said, Chertoff should have given Charbo full authority to hire and fire technology officials and control budgets at DHS component agencies.

Randy Hite, the Government Accountability Office's director of information technology architecture and systems, said the move is consistent with GAO's recommendations in this area.

"Our research of organizations that have successfully leveraged IT for organizational transformation shows that an empowered CIO with a seat at the executive table is one essential ingredient for success," Hite said.

Successful industry and government organizations are starting to recognize that CIOs need to be an integral part of the leadership team and be viewed as a "change leader," said David Wennergren, deputy Defense CIO and vice chairman of the CIO Council.

"By strengthening the role of the CIO to not just be the IT infrastructure expert but to also be the champion for portfolio management, process improvement and information sharing, transformation efforts are able to be rapidly accelerated," Wennergren said. "Federal agencies like DHS are recognizing the crucial role CIOs need to pay in aligning the activities of the enterprise and ensuring that resources are used effectively and efficiently."

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