Do We Need an IT Czar?

WASHINGTON (06/26/2000) - Prepare the way for the information technology czar.

There is growing support in Congress for one, a presidential advisory committee recommends one, and presidential candidate George W. Bush wants one. Every time a security breach occurs, many politicians and government IT experts line up to call for one.

The Clinton administration doesn't like the idea, but that opposition is widely viewed as a temporary impediment. And considering that the federal government spends upwards of US$40 billion or so each year on information technology, a lot of people in senior IT positions in government say it is time to put someone clearly in charge.

Compare the relative electronic anarchy that reigns in the federal government today with the efficient electronic government that is technically feasible, and the situation cries out for a czar. "Twenty-five percent of what we spend [on information technology] is wasted," estimates Roger Baker, chief information officer at the U.S. Department of Commerce and one of the first top-level federal IT managers to publicly call for a federal CIO.

Today, every major federal agency has its CIO, its IT budget and its vision of the future, however vague. "There's no common strategy, there's no common approach, we're all re-inventing the wheel, and once in a while we compare notes on whether it should be round or square," he said. "We have a zillion data centers and a zillion help desks."

With such rampant duplication and disjointed IT endeavors, the result often is an online service of limited utility. Under a strong, central IT administrator, "it wouldn't have developed that way," Baker said.

But don't say the government needs a "czar." That word evokes the wrong image, Baker said. "This is a management issue." It calls for a "federal CIO," he said. Even so, what Baker and others describe is an information officer of imperial proportion.

A federal CIO should be knowledgeable enough to tackle technical issues such as security and privacy, skilled at handling management problems such as personnel shortages, wise in solving social quandaries such as the digital divide and politically astute enough to satisfy Congress and the president. He or she must also find a diplomatic way to impel agency chiefs into the Information Age.

And the job needs clout, said George Molaski, CIO for the Transportation Department. The federal CIO should be a cabinet-level position so the CIO has direct access to the president. "He should be a special assistant to the president," he said. "We don't need a new department."

"Obviously, a CIO needs a good deal of familiarity with information technology," said Herbert Schorr of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, which is preparing a report for President Clinton that will call for appointing a federal CIO. "It would be delightful to get a good person out of one of the agencies. That way he would already know his way around government. Otherwise, you would have someone with a year or two learning curve."

Into the Breach

The idea for a governmentwide CIO got its start in calls for a federal cybersecurity chief. The increasing number and severity of hacker attacks on federal and private Web sites and federal information systems - last year's "Melissa" virus, an e-mail attachment that lowered security settings; denial-of-service attacks this year against Yahoo Inc., EBay Inc. and other e-commerce sites; and last month's "love bug," which attacked e-mail systems and stole passwords - have convinced many federal IT officials that a federal cybersecurity officer is needed.

"Our cross-government efforts in computer security are not adequate today," said John Gilligan, chief information officer at the Energy Department and co-chairman of the CIO Council's Security, Privacy and Critical Infrastructure Committee. "There needs to be some consistent and influential authority."

The General Accounting Office has recommended that a federal CIO be appointed, but such a person would lead the management of all government IT, which leaves very little time to deal with the complicated issue of security. "Computer security, I think, is one of the top issues that needs to be addressed," said Jack Brock, director of governmentwide and defense information systems at GAO.

"And computer security right now is just too big a problem for a national CIO."

Brock believes many security issues are best dealt with at the agency level, by the manager of a particular system. "First and foremost, [security] is the responsibility of the people who own the systems; that is the first line of responsibility and it should be the last line," Brock said.

The Government Information Security Act of 1999, which awaits a Senate vote, proposes that the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget take on a more fully defined role as coordinator of agency security practices.

During the last four years, the Clinton administration has created groups such as the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office to deal with governmentwide security issues, but by law OMB has responsibility for security, and many feel that is the way it should stay.

"You are better off giving extra responsibility to the people who are already responsible...and in that case, the right place is OMB for security management because OMB has responsibility for all IT management," said Bruce McConnell, former head of the Information Policy and Technology Branch at OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and now president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm McConnell International LLC.

The Electronic Government Factor

Following the same line of logic, the Clinton administration has been opposed to appointing a federal CIO. Rather than a czar, the Clinton administration prefers enhancing individual agency CIOs' authority, said Sally Katzen, counselor to the director of OMB. "They know best what the needs are," she said.

As proof, she points to government Web sites that offer the ability to file tax returns electronically, reserve campsites at national parks and apply for federal student loans. FedStats.gov provides a single address for finding a wide array of federal statistics, and another site, launched in April by the Federal Aviation Administration, offers up-to-the-minute weather- related flight information at 40 major U.S. airports.

Furthermore, the administration is developing a single Internet portal for procurement and a portal where exporters can apply for the permits they need to ship goods overseas.

But public demand for electronic services will only increase and could overwhelm agencies - in much the same way that e-commerce has created a crisis mentality in the private sector, according to Stephen Rohleder, a managing partner and government IT specialist for Andersen Consulting Inc.

The fastest-growing cohort of Internet users are 55-year-olds to 65-year-olds, Rohleder said. People in this age group are also the largest users of government services and among the most steadfast voters. They are rapidly becoming accustomed to an expanding array of commercial services online, and their expectations are growing, Rohleder said.

"They are able to buy groceries, clothing, even cars online," he said. "Soon they will begin asking, "Why can't I get my government services that way?' And in two to four years, they will be voting that way," he forecasts.

Creating a federal CIO position "is absolutely critical," he said. "There is a real unique opportunity for the next administration to redefine" how government services are delivered to the public.

Chris Caine, vice president for governmental programs at IBM Corp., also believes government has yet to match the level of services and e-commerce offered in the private sector. He said a federal CIO "may be helpful, but it is not sufficient."

Rather, government should focus on re-engineering so that agencies can make better use of technology to conduct more Web-based transactions with the public and businesses, Caine said. "The objective is to transform an Industrial Age government into an Information Age government, and that involves re-engineering. It's hard, real hard." IBM struggled through the process several years ago, "under the considerably more threatening conditions of the marketplace," he said.

The Name Doesn't Matter

Re-engineering requires leadership from the top, of course, but perhaps more important is an understanding at all levels of the benefits that technology and the Internet offer for making government work better.

"To really make e-government work, we need to find ways to do government-wide and intergovernmental IT projects," said James Flyzik, CIO of the Treasury Department and vice chairman of the CIO Council.

The council recognized that electronic government needed a government-wide push and so created an e-government committee, Flyzik said. "But the fact of the matter is the CIO Council does not control resources," he said. "Money is appropriated to the agencies," and it is "extremely difficult" to convince them to spend their money on IT proj-ects they do not solely control, Flyzik said.

He added that a higher authority, above the level of an agency CIO, is needed, "but I stop short of saying whether that should be an individual, the CIO Council or the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget."

Whoever ends up overseeing the development of federal IT, "they must have a voice at the table in budget decisions," Flyzik insists. With a measure of influence over government IT spending, a federal CIO should be able to approach e-government problems from a functional perspective, rather than from the agency or departmental perspective that prevails today, DOT's Molaski said.

That would be an essential change, most e-government visionaries agree. To understand why, consider a typical citizen seeking information and services online from the federal government. Should he or she have to struggle to locate the right agency or the right department within an agency? Or should electronic links tie related information and services together across agency boundaries, providing individuals with relatively effortless access?

For now, to the extent that government services are online, they are not linked. That has already begun to create a problem, said Kathleen deLaski, group director for editorial products, government and politics at America Online Inc.

AOL's online government guide, which it created earlier this year, received about 13 million page views in April, and hits are increasing 100 percent a month, deLaski told a congressional committee in May. "We're starting to drive traffic to government information and applications," she said.

"But because agencies are not coordinated in their efforts to present more online offerings, it is difficult for AOL to approach government in a holistic fashion," deLaski said. "We need to work with government agencies, but that is difficult when each one is doing its own thing." Agencies are reluctant to invest the resources or exercise the political will necessary "to revolutionize their customer relationship," she said.

With or without an IT czar, federal agencies "must recognize that a new system needs to be created to address the challenge" of e-government, she said.

"We've tried for a couple of years to make things work within the existing system. If this revolution that has been mandated [by federal law] is going to work," the federal government will have to do better.

Waiting in the Wings

That may be more authority than would be granted to a federal CIO under the legislation pending in Congress. Rep. James Turner, a Democrat from Texas, introduced a bill June 15 to create the post of chief information officer of the United States.

Turner's CIO would be a cabinet-level adviser to the president, chairman of the federal CIO Council and keeper of a $4.7 billion nest egg for funding IT projects that cross agency boundaries. The CIO's job would be to "ensure that the federal government is not left behind in the technology revolution," Turner said. "In order to build a working e-government, we need to focus the government's attention on its use of information technology."

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has promised to appoint a "chief information officer for the federal government" if he is elected president.

Bush's CIO would oversee IT projects involving multiple federal agencies and between federal and state agencies. To do so, he would control a $100 million fund for financing IT proj-ects. Bush said he would issue an executive order making the deputy director for management at OMB the federal CIO. Bush's CIO would be responsible for leading and coordinating the transition to "truly digital, citizen-centric government." Vice President Al Gore has not weighed in on the issue.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about America OnlineAndersenAndersenAndersen ConsultingAOLCIO CouncilCritical Infrastructure Assurance OfficeeBayFederal Aviation AdministrationFederal CIO CouncilIBM AustraliaMcConnell InternationalOffice of Management and BudgetTransportationYahoo

Show Comments