National CIO? Congress Says No

Congress briefly considered creating a Chief Information Officer (CIO) to coordinate information technology for the entire federal government. This summer, however, the bill changed.

by / October 31, 1995
Nov 95 Vendors: none

By Brian Miller Features Editor It's a trend at the state level and the federal government briefly flirted with the idea. Governments from the city level to the federal government recognize the importance of centralized information technology policy and coordination, and are responding by creating chief information officer positions. Los Angeles and California are both conducting a headhunt for CIOs, and Georgia recently hired its first. Forty states have a CIO of some type, according to a recent study by the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE). "Most CIOs are functioning at the policy level," said Bradley Dugger, past president of NASIRE and currently Tennessee's version of a CIO. By operating at this "vision" level as opposed to delivering direct services, the idea is to have the CIO cut across the "stovepipes" created by agencies, Dugger said. CIOs set standards so agencies can communicate and share information, as well as make sure information can be accessed quickly and accurately by decision makers. As this happened, "it became obvious that we can't have it all spread out," said Dugger. "We need to put the structure together so information is there. It's a way to blow away the smokestacks." But especially relevant is that information technology has only recently made it possible for large organizations such as government to access and coordinate information across the board. The compartmentalization which characterizes bureaucracies was created before networking PCs was even science fiction. The need for coordination across agency lines has not been lost on the federal government. Congress nearly created a CIO position in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and CIOs in each agency this summer with a bill introduced by Sen. Bill Cohen, R-Maine. The bill was changed in a subcommittee from having a CIO over the entire government to having each agency with a CIO and coordination done through administrative committees. The bill's sponsor agreed after debate to change to bill to eliminate a governmentwide CIO. Cohen's bill was attached to the Defense Authorization bill, which is part of the 1996 budget package. No opposition to the CIO language was expected when the authorization bill came up for a vote as part of the budget package passed in the fall. Cohen, who last year published Computer Chaos - a report on problems in federal computer procurement and project implementation - asserted that S. 946 would "fundamentally change the government's focus of information technology from a technical issue to a management issue." The CIO would have the authority to approve projects as well as halt projects not meeting benchmarks. The CIO would also have a say on technology procurement for constituent agencies. Agency CIOs would be chosen by agency heads and placed high in the organization. The agency CIOs would be responsible for ensuring that performance measures were adopted for projects, and that they were used in purchasing decisions and operations. But at a hearing of a subcommittee of the Governmental Affairs Committee in July, the idea of a federal CI0 was dropped after testimony by several administration representatives. John A. Koskinen, a deputy director of OMB, argued that while the bill's interagency coordination and standards goals are positive, the bill contained provisions unnecessarily rigid for agencies. And a CIO in OMB, he said, would have operational decisions rather than the office's traditional policy role. "Given our current staffing and resources, it is particularly unrealistic to task OMB with such operational matters as the development of technical standards, the determination of the applicability of certain procurement laws, and maintenance of a detailed past performance database on federal contractors," said Koskinen. Koskinen later told Government Technology that regular budget oversight by OMB along with an agency CIO would be sufficient, and having a governmentwide CIO would just add an unnecessary layer of management. OMB prefers that the responsibility for planning and purchasing technology be "in the agency, and we can oversee it in the budget process," Koskinen said. A federal CIO would create "extra paperwork and lengthen procurement."

Procurement Changes Cohen's amended bill also repeals the Brooks Act, a procurement law that has been in place for about 30 years. Brooks authorizes the General Services Administration (GSA) to be involved in the approval and purchase of information technology. But since the act was created, information technology purchasing has changed, said Cohen in Computer Chaos, and the GSA is now regarded as a "bureaucratic hurdle to overcome." Cohen's bill keeps procurement responsibility inside the buying agency. Instead of filing paperwork with the GSA for technology purchases, the responsibility lies with the agency's CIO. The agency would justify the purchases during the annual budget process. A GSA representative agreed during Cohen's subcommittee hearing that the Brooks Act had outlived its effectiveness for technology procurement, but disagreed with the proposal to have a governmentwide CIO. "Arguably, the bill merely creates a new bureaucratic layer, the CIO at OMB, while removing another layer, by repeal of the Brooks Act oversight by GSA," said Roger Johnson, a GSA administrator. "I believe that a more effective management solution would emphasize the responsibilities of CIOs in each agency and would increase the use of interagency councils and panels to provide expertise to agencies in large, complex or risky information technology procurements," Johnson said.

Pooling Resources Another assertion made by witnesses at the subcommittee hearing is that interagency work has the advantage of being able to get the best people to work on a project, regardless of agency lines. "Instead of depending on each agency to maintain a core of IT experts who can deal with any system no matter how large or complex, we all seem to agree that the government would do better by leveraging the best experience and talent across agency lines," said Koskinen. "Too often, individual agencies have been overwhelmed by large, complex systems projects which are beyond their own capacities to manage." An example of cross-agency work already underway is the Government Information Technology Services working group, which is part of the National Performance Review. OMB also has an interagency group working on improving service delivery through information technology.

Federal, State, Local Eliminating walls between agencies has become a common theme in government, and CIO positions are being looked at by governors and legislative bodies as a way to set policies that will enable this to happen. But while a state CIO could deal effectively with an administration and legislature, a creation as big as a federal government CIO would be extremely difficult for an office in OMB to deal with. To put it in perspective, the Defense Department alone is larger than some state governments. A federal CIO would have a job that few who value peace and cooperation would envy. With the dozens of large agencies, "there would be more than one rattlesnake in the grass," said one state CIO. So while a state CIO could get his or her arms around a bureaucracy, a federal CIO may never stand a chance at being effective. The job would just be too big.