Industry Perspective: Will the Real (Government) CIO Please Stand Up?

With the overabundance of CIO positions, the influence of the title has been reduced and unnecessary challenges are leaking into the federal IT ecosystem.

by William Lord, board member of EvolveWare / April 30, 2014

The government’s ability to leverage IT innovation is in trouble — not due to budget cuts, but because there is a serious leadership crisis among federally employed CIOs.

Although the roots of the problem are complex, the leadership crisis boils down to an overabundance of CIO positions, a scenario that has reduced the influence of the title and brought unnecessary challenges into the federal IT ecosystem.

Simply put, the government needs to rehab its image and restore its ability to manage large, complex IT projects. The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) can resolve the overlap in the government’s CIO leadership, and lay the groundwork for a more effective way to manage technology innovation going forward.

Too Many Cooks in the IT Kitchen

Effective IT hinges on the ability to rapidly arrive at the right decisions. Ideally, agencies and organizations need decision-makers who have the authority to execute and manage projects within carefully developed parameters — empowering IT processes while preventing the kinds of overlaps that breed confusion and inefficiency.

But that’s not what’s happening at the federal level, where the presence of too many CIOs is crippling decision-making activities. Right now, the federal government employs more than 250 CIOs. However, no CIO has the necessary authority to effectively manage projects and IT investments. Since decisions can only be made at the departmental level, it is virtually impossible to standardize IT processes across agencies.

Additionally, the lack of a clear leadership structure is preventing accountability in the implementation and execution of federal IT initiatives. In the absence of a project leader who bears responsibility for technology initiatives, agencies struggle to manage projects and ensure contractors deliver quality software and support. 

Federal IT projects also move forward more slowly than they should because there is no director overseeing IT initiatives. IT’s rapid development cycle is a poor match for the notoriously slow speed of bureaucratic processes. Without strong leadership, IT decisions crawl through the bureaucratic pipeline, delaying the implementation of important projects.

A Broken Chain of Command

Recent failures highlight the seriousness of the government’s IT leadership problem. Successful organizations understand the important role IT development processes play in enabling expansion and the achievement of critical program objectives. 

But the Air Force’s $1 billion failure in the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) combined with the shockingly pitiful rollout demonstrate a recurring and disturbing theme — there is insufficient oversight of IT projects that are deemed critical to the government’s stated objectives.

These failures (and others) can be partially attributed to the sheer multitude of CIOs and lack of project ownership, as previously stated. 

Poorly designed procurement processes are also to blame for the early failure of the website. In a typical scenario, government procurement processes grant contracts of 10 years or longer for complex IT projects. But extended contracts discourage innovation and increase costs, since the cost of implementing a new technology typically declines by half every two years.

The bottom line is that the government needs to take a fresh look at the way it manages and implements IT — especially when it comes to critical technology projects that are expected to drive the achievement of key policy objectives.

Restoring Effective IT Leadership

Both internal and external stakeholders in government IT circles realize that something needs to change. The good news is that FITARA can go a long way toward strengthening the government’s IT management capabilities. 

Right away, FITARA would reduce the number of CIOs the government employs, giving each remaining CIO real authority in the decision-making process. In addition to streamlining the government’s IT bureaucracy, this would prevent the fragmentation of government IT projects along departmental lines, creating greater consistency in IT.

Fewer CIOs with more authority would also help the federal government pursue more strategic IT goals. Without real authority, CIOs are unable to influence top-level decisions, resulting in a fragmented, disjointed IT landscape. But when CIOs have the authority they need to operate effectively, IT is able to function in a more strategic manner in support of larger agency objectives.

Coupled with a more agile acquisition process, FITARA would have a similar effect on the development side, enabling CIOs to implement newer technology and aggressively pursue IT-centric goals. This could dramatically shorten the amount of time it takes for the government to begin leveraging new technology and create a much more efficient implementation process.

Paving the Way for Tomorrow’s IT

On a global level, FITARA is important for keeping the U.S. at the forefront of technology. Both civilian and military IT projects depend on effective leadership. Aside from and the ECSS, there are many aging systems that will require the leadership of CIOs that are supported by broader authority and a better acquisition process.

Going forward, there is widespread agreement that IT will continue to move to the center of government initiatives. As IT becomes more central to the execution of government policy, it will become more and more painful for federal agencies to stumble through byzantine acquisition processes with no clear leadership.

Most importantly, FITARA addresses the root cause of government IT dysfunction. By streamlining the acquisition process, reducing the number of CIOs and giving each CIO more authority, the core problems plaguing government IT initiatives will be resolved, clearing a path for future innovation.

Retired Lieutenant General William T. Lord is the former CIO of the U.S. Air Force. He currently serves as a board member to EvolveWare, an IT solutions firm that develops tools which automate and modernize legacy IT infrastructure. 


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