Technology chiefs poised to take a more strategic role

Longtime Washington insider Leon Panetta is known for his candor. So, when asked how agency chiefs prepare for a new administration, the former Office of Management and Budget director's reply was not surprising: "There have been transitions where people put their stuff in a box, lock the door and get the hell out. But I think it really ill-serves the public to do that."

Panetta, who also was President Clinton's chief of staff, says a smooth switch over is particularly important for posts such as chief information officer, which was created by the Clinger-Cohen Act to oversee federal information technology infrastructure. Given agencies' reliance on high-tech networks, actions by CIOs in the coming months could be some of the most critical of their careers, Panetta and others told Government Executive.

Although Clinger-Cohen took effect in 1996, months and in some cases, years passed before CIO positions were filled. Clinton left office in January 2001, and during the course of George W. Bush's two terms, the CIO community has matured and evolved. The next administration change will be the first meaningful one for many, which begs the question: How do CIOs communicate to a new White House their near- and long-term priorities, successes and challenges?

"The same way I'm doing it," answers the affable Karen Evans, who has been OMB's administrator for IT and e-government since 2003. "They should lay out everything that they're currently working on-all activity as it aligns to the mission and business of that agency." CIOs should be able to articulate to the transition team "here's where we are, here's what we have left to accomplish," regardless of incoming or outgoing party affiliation, she adds.

The cluster of CIOs who are political appointees needs to describe to new arrivals how the dedication of certain resources intersect with an agency's business priorities, Evans says, especially with respect to human resources and financial management systems. "A lot of times when people come in, they say, 'I used to be able do this at my old company. Can I do that here?' The CIO needs to explain how they can accomplish that," she says.

On a more superficial level, the transition must be seamless for technological applications on which government workers rely for day-to-day operations. A surefire way to lose credibility "is if e-mail accounts aren't up and BlackBerrys aren't running" during the frenzied early days of an administration, says Evans, who also oversees the work of the interagency CIO Council. "That could make or break your projects."

Unfinished Business

Mark Forman, who preceded Evans at OMB, offered guidance for political appointees who might be starting their job hunt. "Be able to show that you did something major," he says, and make good on the pledge, either stated or implied, "to leave the agency better than you found it." Forman adds: "You have to pick your legacy. Make sure the important projects get done and the longer term ones that aren't going to move forward are left in the best shape that you can."

Career CIOs are a horse of a different color. They have to demonstrate that they understand the challenges an agency faces, plus its operations and transformational needs, says Forman, who is now a partner at global consulting firm KPMG. "When the new team comes in, [existing CIOs] have to show that they aren't part of the problem," he says. That process could include reviewing unfinished projects and renaming or repackaging them with a new focus for a new White House.

CIOs who plan to stick around should be Web 2.0-savvy and show that they have embraced green IT. Both phenomena are all the rage in corporate America, where key members of the incoming administration will have spent time, he says. New agency heads "won't have much patience for the government being slow or inefficient" because of silos or clunky old legacy systems, Forman notes. There are "all sorts of new tools and technologies that can save money and are environmentally conscious," he says.

The Wrong Direction

Paul Brubaker, who was the staff architect of the Clinger-Cohen Act while working for then-Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, wants CIOs in the new administration to take a fresh look at the law he helped craft. "I hope they dust it off and realize the important strategic role they should be playing," he says. That's because the millennium Y2K scare and other 21st century agency priorities "shoved a lot of CIOs to the operational side," displacing them from their intended purpose. "CIOs weren't envisioned to dive into the bits and bytes," he says. "They were to be the IT strategic partner within an organization."

Like Brubaker, Edward Meagher, deputy CIO for the Interior Department, says the incoming administration must embrace the Clinger-Cohen Act because most agencies are "headed in the wrong direction." The Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments are the only two civilian agencies that are truly in compliance, he says. "This is a law that Congress passed and the president signed, yet the government just routinely disregards it."

An increasing number of CIOs report to chief financial officers, and they do not get a seat at the agency budgetary or planning table, Meagher says.

Departments, including his own, are reverting to "the bad old days of IT being a cost center that needed to be managed adroitly by a financial person," he says. The government spends billions of dollars on IT annually, and "we repetitively buy the same plumbing over and over," he says, adding that "nobody can defend that we do it well."

The Virtual Battlefield

Brubaker, who now runs a Transportation Department office charged with researching and employing cost-reduction technologies, said perennial programmatic issues associated with capital planning and workforce development while coping with a stagnant IT budget will be what the next administration has to look forward to.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a handful of other agencies and departments have strategy-focused CIOs who should be models for the next administration, he says. But many are involved in day-to-day debates over technical standards and equipment. "When a laptop dis-appears, we run to the CIO," Brubaker says. "CIOs have brought that on themselves by associating themselves with the operational side of the house and not the strategic."

For Meagher, cybersecurity is priority No. 1, and he believes it should hold the same weight for his counterparts across the federal landscape. "We have to take it seriously and we don't yet. We don't understand the threat that is facing this government," he says. "The Chinese don't have to build or acquire another airplane or another tank to defeat this country. They'll defeat us in a cyber war."

In eight years, the Bush administration has taken steps in the right direction, but the United States still is not adequately prepared to defend itself on the virtual battlefield, Meagher says. "Until the next administration appreciates this and acts accordingly, it's going to be difficult," he adds. "The management community doesn't get this. The CFO community doesn't get this. Hopefully someone will listen."

Transition plans for departments will vary based on where on the organizational chart the CIO sits and the ability of that individual to speak candidly, Meagher says. Only a handful of CIOs are political appointees so most are "not at the end of their government career-they're at a transition point," he explains, noting that "they have to be careful what they say."

Keeping Agencies Afloat

Realistically speaking, the first six months of the new administration will focus on the placement of agency secretaries, department heads and key advisers, Panetta says. Even though the CIO is important, it could take a while before there is any certainty associated with that job. "A new team coming in isn't going to put a CIO at the top of their to-do list," he says. During that period, however, career employees-including certain CIOs-will be integral in keeping agencies afloat.

Some administrations like to clean house and others let agency chiefs decide who stays and who goes. "The real question may be whether these people are truly political or professional," Panetta says. "There's always a danger if you allow someone to stay on who is political and is loyal to the prior administration-it could be a risky move." If a "friendly" administration comes in-one that is the same political party-more CIOs will have the opportunity to stay on board, he says, "assuming that they haven't screwed up."

Andrew Noyes is a reporter for National Journal's CongressDaily.

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