Seats at the Table

The federal CIO Council, once almost an afterthought, has matured into an important voice for public-sector technology policies.

by / August 1, 2003
Gerry Wethington, president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), remembers when his group first met with their federal counterparts at the CIO Council. There was plenty of talk, but little action. Now, times have changed as both branches of government realize the need for coordination and integration between federal and state CIOs and their policies is greater than ever.

So when federal e-government czar Mark Forman picks up the phone, the states listen, and vice versa. "[NASCIO's] leadership talks with Mark Forman on a regular basis," said Wethington. "I know two weeks don't go by that we're not on the phone or in his office talking about particular issues."

Forman's position was one of the outcomes of The E-Government Act of 2002, which established a federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) within the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB's) Office of Electronic Government.

A key element in the federal government's e-government management structure is the CIO Council, which is the interagency forum for improving practices related to the design, acquisition, development, modernization, use, operation, sharing and performance of federal government information resources, according to the E-Government Act.

Get the CIOs Together
Primarily made up of CIOs from major federal agencies, such as the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education and Energy, the Council is chaired by the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) deputy director for management, although Forman, administrator of the Office of Electronic Government, leads Council activities on the deputy director's behalf.

The Council recommends policies and standards, and serves as a central point through which best practices, innovative approaches and ideas can be filtered. The evolution of the CIO Council's role has followed the evolution of the CIO's role, according to Emory Miller, director of the Office of Professional Development at the General Services Administration (GSA). The Office of Professional Development serves an outreach role for the CIO Council.

"The Clinger-Cohen Act established a CIO in every department," Miller said. "But they were all very different when we began. Some were figureheads. Some had budgets. And then everybody said, 'Let's get the CIOs together,' because it seemed if we are all of the same feather, we would be able to share best practices and common interests, and we could develop guidance documents."

The Council, which was created by executive order, has been around since July 6, 1996. At first, many of the Council's efforts were aimed at educating others, explained Gary Winters, a senior policy analyst with the GSA. "A lot of what the Council did was get out there and let people know who we are, what we can do, what we mean by 'technology' and how that technology can be applied to improve our business practices," Winters said.

From that early informational and guidance role, the CIO Council matured into something more dynamic -- a tool to manage projects and initiatives.

Karen Evans, CIO for the Department of Energy and the Council's vice chair, also emphasized the Council's growing managerial role. In a memorandum marking her election to the CIO Council, she said the group of federal CIOs serves to both recommend policies to the OMB, and once those policies have been adopted, see to their implementation.

More specifically, Evans articulated the Council's mission as:

-providing input to OMB for formulation of policy;
-guiding the implementation of OMB policy;
-developing transaction standards for government;
-developing a governance process for IT architecture;
-developing work force training programs for IT project managers; and
-developing taxonomy and XML data definitions that apply across government.

"Originally you could see the CIO did not have a seat at the table," Winters said. "Now I think it's transitioned to the point where they not only have a seat at the table, they also have a voice -- and a very important voice -- in the overall business management of departments of the government."

Enterprise Architecture
One of the CIO Council's key undertakings is to support development and implementation of a federal enterprise architecture (FEA) in conjunction with the Federal Enterprise Architecture Program Management Office (FEAPMO). The FEA is a framework for cross-agency collaboration, transformation and government-wide improvement. The architecture provides the OMB and federal agencies with a tool to help describe, analyze and improve the functioning and quality of federal government activities and services.

For example, the FEA Business Reference Model (BRM) describes the business operations of the federal government independent of the agencies that perform them. It provides an integrated view of the federal government's business, detailing activities the government performs as a whole. When agencies develop their own enterprise architectures to describe their operations, the BRM is used as a common vocabulary and a way to classify each agency's contribution to the overall business of government.

By framing activities of all agencies in the same language, the architecture helps the OMB compare similar functions across agencies to identify and eliminate duplicative efforts. Ultimately the FEA and BRM will help unify common functions, thereby reducing waste and improving citizen-centered services. In addition to the BRM, FEAPMO is developing other reference models to help standardize the language and approaches used to measure performance, capture and store data, and build technology infrastructures.

State and local governments may also benefit from the FEA. When the importance of collaboration among all levels of government is increasingly realized, the FEA intends to be a common, known and documented architecture that promises to make it easier to interact, do business and communicate with the federal government.

"The thing about enterprise architecture is it isn't a project, it is a program," said NASCIO's Wethington. "It has lifecycles, and it continues to mature and evolve. Enterprise architecture is the foundation, and it gives us that consistent theme for conversation and lets us look at the outputs we're looking for, which is information sharing through the layers of government. It's the mechanism whereby we will accomplish that."

Reaching Out
The CIO Council consults regularly with representatives of state, local and tribal governments, and works with the private sector, primarily through collaboration with the Industry Advisory Council (IAC), a group representing industry and the federal government. For states, much collaboration is coordinated through NASCIO, which has a seat on the CIO Council, and in turn, provides a seat on its executive committee to a CIO Council representative.

Cooperation between NASCIO and the CIO Council was slow to start, but has gained momentum, according to Wethington.

"The federal CIO Council is to the federal government what NASCIO is to the state governments," explained Wethington, who witnessed many changes in the way the CIO Council and state governments have worked together over the years. "I think the first change was probably more rhetoric. We talked about the fact that we were going to collaborate, but I think the reason it was more rhetoric than real is because it takes a while for people to get comfortable with one another.

"It's kind of like going into a sparring match," he continued. "Every time you come in, you're not sure where the other person sits, and you take some time to get familiar. [But] we're past that now. I think over these last three or four years, we've seen leadership instilled in the federal CIO Council that has real authority. We've seen CIOs in the states mature. We've seen architecture and project management efforts take off. Now we're to the point where we can see some real progress."

Paul Taylor, chief strategy officer for the Center for Digital Government and former deputy CIO for Washington state, views the cooperative work between states and the CIO Council as something long desired by state IT leaders.

"In the formative years, I was involved with NASIRE [National Association of State Information Resource Executives], which later became NASCIO," Taylor said. "During that time, high on NASIRE's wish list was to identify federal counterparts, so there could be points of coordination. And where there were common business problems, common technology problems or opportunities, there would be a group of colleagues at a federal level that you could coordinate with."

To a large extent, the CIO Council began to fill that role. Taylor points to the success of the Y2K remediation, and to efforts to create a public key security bridge to help assure interoperability of security certificates as achievable results when federal and state agencies cooperate. "State CIOs could never have done that by themselves," he pointed out.

As the CIO Council moves forward, the means for connecting agencies and levels of government should take a federated approach rather than a uniform, mandated approach, Taylor said. In other words, the effort should be geared toward connecting "at the edges" rather than attempting to mandate a monolithic model.

"If the CIO Council and NASCIO can define which government entities connect at the edges, we will be well served," he said.

The Future
This is a very exciting time to be involved in IT, said the CIO Council's Evans, especially to be part of transforming the way the federal government does business.

"While information technology companies today are faced with major challenges and must work to find solutions that will enable them to stay alive, the application of information technology within the government is full of opportunities," she said. "We're trying to put more rigor into the process. We don't want to do process for process' sake. The intent is to unify and simplify, to 'create once and use many' by implementing that vision -- making it a reality and not just a bunch of sayings."

Evans agrees enterprise architecture is a key part of the CIO Council's work, but places even more importance on use of the enterprise architectures.

Enterprise architecture is the heart of the CIO Council's function, Evans said, adding that the technology and infrastructure behind the enterprise architecture helps agencies perform more efficiently. "[But it is] the leadership from the president down that is necessary to drive change -- to take the technology to the next level," she said. "The enterprise architecture by itself is lifeless. Great leaders are what make the enterprise architecture a tool we can use to get results."

Evans points to the president's management agenda as an important factor in focusing government on results and moving to a citizen-centered way of operating. As to the future, she sees a continuation of the changes that have already occurred.

"Overall, the government as a whole will be result-oriented and citizen-centered," she said. "It will be more about the services we provide to the citizen in an efficient and effective way. It will be 'my government, my terms.' I believe that is where we will be in three to five years."

After spending several years working as a public interest advocate, David Aden entered the technology field in the 1980s. He is CTO for Webworld Studios Inc. a northern Virginia Web application and consulting firm. He has co-authored three technology books and is currently senior architect for an ongoing enterprise architecture effort for a federal regulatory agency.
David Aden
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.