GAO: Federal CIOs Need More Power

WASHINGTON (03/24/2000) - The key to improving management of federal information technology projects may rest in giving federal CIOs (chief information officers) the same kind of power and recognition that their private sector counterparts have.

That was one of the conclusions in a report released at a hearing today by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO). The report compared the management challenges of federal CIOs with those faced by their peers in the private sector.

The House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, which held the hearing, was told by both public agency and private chief information officers that CIOs need to be recognized by top executives to be effective.

"Empower the CIOs in the federal government to affect and motivate change, as we been empowered in private industry," urged Suzanne Krupa, the CIO of the Rowe Cos., a Salem, Virginia-based home furnishings company.

The subcommittee has been investigating information security practices at federal agencies. As part of that effort, committee chairman Representative Stephen Horn (Republican, California) wants to improve the ability of federal CIOs to manage IT projects at their agencies. He is looking to the private sector for ideas.

"The private sector knows that information management not only dictates how a business works, but it increasingly defines what that business is," said Horn.

But in its report on CIO management practices, the GAO found that many CIOs at federal agencies aren't included in executive business decision-making.

Moreover, information management is still often treated as a technical support function rather than a strategic asset, said David McClure, a GAO associate director who testified today before the committee.

Federal CIOs also face unique challenges. The CIO may be dealing with a political appointee/agency head who isn't focused on information system issues.

Federal budget and personnel policies, including pay rates that are lower than those in private industry, can also constrain IT managers, said McClure.

The federal government spends some US$40 billion annually on IT projects.

"There is a disparity from agency to agency in the organizational placement and authority of the CIO," said Jim Flyzik, the CIO of the Treasury Department.

"Private-sector CIOs can work directly with the CEOs to make immediate decisions," said Flyzik. "Public-sector CIOs must plan well in advance and work through various layers of government to achieve such change."

CIOs are a relatively recent phenomena in federal and state governments.

Federal IT management reform legislation in 1996, known as the Clinger-Cohen Act, called upon agencies to centralize IT management and establish CIOs.

Meanwhile, CIOs in state agencies may be having more success in working directly with top government leaders than federal CIOs, according to the results of a survey released in February by the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE).

The NASIRE survey found that 27 state CIOs are now reporting directly to their governors, up from eight in 1996.

In successful private companies, the CIO is a significant member of the lead management team and reports to the CEO, said Gerald Knutson, vice president of US West Inc., a Denver-based telecommunications company.

"Until the CIO is recognized and given that authority... it will be very difficult for that CIO to be successful," said Knutson.

Unlike many states, the federal government doesn't have a single CIO who manages all IT projects across the board. There has been an ongoing debate among federal officials about whether a CIO czar is needed.

Knutson, in particular, urged the creation of such a post -- someone who could chair the CIO council and has direct access to the president.

For now, it seems as if the federal CIO council is made up of a lot of "frustrated people," said Knutson, "not only because they struggle with their role in their agency, but because there are a lot of good ideas floating around that somebody has to try but nobody has any direction about who is supposed to jump first."

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