Two news stories from Washington, D.C., illustrate how complex, at times, the role of the federal CIO has become.

In 2006, the theft of a laptop computer containing data on 26.5 million veterans reminded us just how vulnerable sensitive government data has become in today's technology-dependent public sector. The incident also put a harsh spotlight on federal CIOs -- not just at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but across all major departments and minor agencies.

In February, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a congressional report covering the benefits of the Bush administration's e-government initiatives. The report documented the results of several years of effort to establish the federal government electronically for citizens and workers. Programs like GovBenefits.gov, the IRS e-file service and Grants.gov were singled out for putting government services online while saving money.

These contrasting stories reflect, to some degree, the mixed scorecard CIOs receive for the work they do with the $64 billion IT federal budget. Despite the bad press surrounding data theft, federal IT executives focus heavily on IT security, listing it as their No. 1 issue, according to a recent survey by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), the IT industry association.

They also do a better job at managing IT. The relentless focus on enterprise architecture has paid off with CIOs reporting "improved IT management as a key area of progress," according to the survey. This maturity is shown in a number of areas, including e-government. National customer satisfaction surveys have ranked the IRS's e-file program as high, if not higher, than some of the most popular retail Web sites, such as Amazon.com.

Clinger-Cohen Act

What's happening today can be traced back to the Clinger-Cohen Act, passed more than 10 years ago. It created the federal CIO position and required agencies to follow best business practices for managing IT. With 2006 marking the act's 10th anniversary, critics took stock and found mediocre results, pointing to a handful of high-profile project failures.

For example, much was made of the Federal Aviation Administration's massive modernization program, where numerous IT projects spilled over budget and fell behind schedule. Similar criticism was aimed at the FBI's failed case management system and the ongoing modernization efforts at the IRS. Some critics saw this as symptomatic of Clinger-Cohen's failure to take root.

But others believe a few bad apples don't make for a rotten barrel. "I think Clinger-Cohen has been very effective," said Michael Farber, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, a global strategy and technology consulting firm. Farber, who's been involved with IT strategy in the public and private sectors for almost a quarter century, believes that though the execution of Clinger-Cohen has hit some snags, the act has been advantageous for the federal government.

"The complexities of IT, especially in the face of greater security needs, have allowed CIOs to step out and demonstrate their effectiveness," he said. "Prior to 9/11, folks in the federal government built fragmented databases with no care about the flow of information. Since 9/11, CIOs have focused on the enterprise view and the need for more coordination."

The results, Farber added, have been noteworthy.

David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the General Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, also sees progress with Clinger-Cohen, although he said much work still needs to be done.

"We're much further ahead, especially when it comes to enterprise architecture practices and using technology in strategic ways," he said, but admitted there are still weaknesses in providing oversight and in giving CIOs the power to be strategic players. "The management processes are working right, but there's great inconsistency when it comes to giving CIOs the authority to get the job done."

The focus on expanding security, streamlining processes and improving the delivery of Internet services led to significantly better management practices among federal CIOs, but the cost has been less attention to innovation, said Fred Thompson, vice president for management and technology at the Council for Excellence in Government, and a former IT executive at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He said too many federal CIOs are politically appointed to their jobs, which means getting the job done depends too much on having the right relationships at the top and not enough on qualifications.

Oversight and Outsourcing

Ten years ago, the federal IT budget was $28 billion. Today, spending has surged past the $60 billion mark and is still rising. All sectors of the federal government depend more on IT than ever before. At the same time, the federal government, unlike other government sectors, relies heavily on outside contractors. Despite the possible political ramifications from outsourcing, all indications show that reliance on the private sector, when it comes to IT, will only increase.

As a result, oversight, especially for high-risk IT projects, has become crucial. In 2006, the GAO issued a report calling for greater oversight by the OMB. With 226 IT projects worth $6.4 billion, and classified as risky, the GAO called for stronger processes from the OMB for identifying and overseeing projects that were in danger of missing deadlines or performance expectations. The OMB disputed the GAO's findings, but there's no question that oversight is a critical issue as federal IT projects grow in scope and size, and increasingly rely on contractors and outsourcing for design and implementation.

To its credit, the OMB has helped federal CIOs crystallize their IT management skills through the enterprise architecture program. The OMB set basic benchmarks that allow CIOs to evaluate the efficiency of various IT programs (and to report those findings back to the OMB). With its ability to withhold funding if performance targets aren't met, the OMB built a process that identifies passing and failing IT projects. This practice doesn't exist to the same degree in state or local government.

The results have been interesting. Federal CIOs report big achievements in the area of IT consolidation and infrastructure modernization, according to ITAA's CIO survey. CIOs are also expanding their use of corporate tool sets, such as portfolio management. Though most federal CIOs said much still needs to be accomplished when it comes to managing IT portfolios, the growing use of portfolio management and other management processes in the federal sector bodes well for IT, according to experts.

Additional progress can be found in the federal sector's e-government program. Launched in 2001 and centered on 24 initiatives, the Bush administration has made e-government one of its most visible efforts in IT. The online services are subject to the administration's quarterly management scorecard and have been further burnished by a Line of Business task force formed in 2004 that identifies common solutions to avoid duplication and increase efficiency.

And federal CIOs focused their energy and resources on trying to get their e-government initiative to "green" -- the highest mark on the scorecard system that President Bush reviews periodically. Several e-government services received high marks, especially IRS's e-file, which lets citizens access forms and use free filing programs.

But like their counterparts in state and local government, as well as overseas (most notably the United Kingdom), federal e-government adoption rates haven't met expectations. In December 2006, the OMB released a report that showed lagging usage of many federal e-government sites. For example, the Interior Department's Recreation One-Stop Web site was used for only 55 percent of all camping and lodging reservations. The Office of Personnel Management posted 14,032 job openings online, but received only 3,431 applications through its site during the same period. And online filing of federal income tax returns slowed considerably after a fast start.

Like its state and local counterparts, the federal government is trying to devise ways to drive more citizens, as well as businesses and even government workers, to use online services. The anemic adoption rates for many of these sites hasn't been missed by Congress, which has repeatedly cut funding connected with the administration's e-government program, forcing agencies to find alternative ways to keep them running while growing their business.

Cabinet-Level CIO

Several years ago, the Progressive Policy Institute called for establishing a Cabinet-level CIO position so that oversight, authority and leadership regarding IT in the federal sector would rest in the hands of one office. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the former House Government Reform Committee chairman, has spoken a number of times -- as recently as last year -- about his support for the creation of a Cabinet-level federal CIO position.

But around the Beltway, the idea received mixed reviews. Farber sees both pros and cons to such a position. He would rather give Clinger-Cohen a better chance to succeed as it was originally meant to work than redirect attention toward having an IT czar who meets with the president's Cabinet.

Powner wonders whether such a person could really oversee an IT program that encompasses 900 projects worth $64 billion. He pointed out that the OMB already has a person involved in daily operations as well as strategic thinking about IT. "First, I have to give Karen Evans [administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology at the OMB] lots of credit for what she has accomplished," he said. "Second, I think what we need is more oversight and scrutiny of the CIOs we have, not another CIO position."

If not a Cabinet-level CIO, what does the federal government need to sustain and nurture its IT programs and the CIOs who run them? According to the ITAA survey, federal CIOs expect that in the future they'll be recognized as "key members of the senior-most leadership teams of their respective agencies" and "will play a prominent role in the overall agency planning process."

Rather than view the future CIO as a support manager, many analysts and experts believe a federal-level position would command significant influence and importance.

Specifically Thompson would like to see future CIOs take on IT management and innovation. "The CIO has to look beyond his or her door. The CIO must be a change agent, where different technologies and approaches can be examined and embraced. Overall, we need more focus on the future than there has been."

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.