Battling Over CIO Power

Battle lines are being drawn over how agencies shape the chief information officer (CIO) job. A recent General Accounting Office report (GAO/AIMD-96-78) demonstrates that congressional auditors interpret the 1996 Information Technology Management Reform Act (ITMRA) as a mandate for strong, highly placed CIOs with budget authority and broad responsibilities. Equally clear from the study, which analyzed NASA's chief information officer, is that agencies may disagree with GAO's assessment of how to apportion authority and responsibility among senior managers and the
chief information officer.

NASA has admitted to long-standing problems with redundant, overlapping, unintegrated and obsolete information systems. GAO has said the agency's "culture of autonomy and decentralization" prevents efficient and cost-effective IT operations. These criticisms, combined with NASA's plan to cut IT spending by $400 million between fiscal 1997 and 2000, led the agency to appoint a CIO in 1995. Supporting the CIO were a deputy, a staff of six and 23 CIOs at NASA headquarters and field centers.

The study finds the CIO was hobbled by NASA's stubborn insistence on dispersing power. For example, to stay "customer-focused," the 23 center CIOs had to report to their local managers as well as serve the CIO. To maintain "friendly tension," the CIO was forced to reach memoranda of understanding with centers rather than give them orders. Nor was the CIO given control of any part of NASA's budget, permitted to join in program decisions, or allowed to make IT investment decisions.

In spite of these limits, GAO acknowledges the CIO took "important first steps" to improve IT management, among them directing consolidation of shared information technology infrastructure at Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala.

Since ITMRA's enactment, NASA has created a CIO Council and taken steps to improve IT policy-making, investments and coordination. But auditors still find NASA's technology management lacking and its CIO weak. While auditors want the CIO's authority and duties bulked up, NASA touts its CIO as a model for other agencies.

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