Time to update the federal CIO law?

Sen. Collins asked GAO to study the current roles and responsibilities of these senior technology managers. This would be the third such study from GAO since 19...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Nearly 15 years after the Clinger-Cohen Act, the debate continues about what exactly is the role of federal chief information officers.

To many, the 1996 law is clear: CIOs are to answer to the secretary and have oversight over technology at all levels of the agency, including budget, architecture and implementation.

But as current and former CIOs will say, few agencies have lived up to the spirit or intent of Clinger-Cohen. And one influential Senator wants to know whether the law needs to be updated.

“In 2011, it will be 15 years since the enactment of Clinger-Cohen and more than six years since GAO completed work on this topic; however challenges in implementing and overseeing major IT investments still persist,” wrote Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to the Government Accountability Office. “Specifically, the position of CIOs is not equally respected across the federal government and according to a recent survey, CIOs still lack adequate resources to achieve technology efficiencies and improve organizational performance.”

Collins, who is the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pointed to long-standing complaints about CIO’s role and problems with technology execution. The Office of Management and Budget’s recent aggressive stance on failing or troubled IT projects once again brings the debate about what exactly is the role of the CIO back to the forefront.

GAO will hold two-sessions, March 22 and March 24, with former government CIOs as part of their study “to examine the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies’ Chief Information Officers in managing information and technology,” according to an invitation from GAO’s Valerie Melvin, director of Information Management and Human Capital Issues on the IT Team, to a former CIO obtained by Federal News Radio.

GAO also is talking to current CIOs about their places and functions in their agencies.

“The purpose of these discussions will be to elicit views regarding the statutory responsibilities given to federal CIOs, lessons learned by CIOs in managing information and technology, and areas in which current legislation (i.e., the Clinger-Cohen Act and related laws) may be revised to enhance CIO’s authority and effectiveness,” Melvin wrote in the invitation.

GAO conducted similar studies in the past, but hasn’t done a new one since 2005.

Collins wrote agencies continue to have the same problems in managing technology as they did 15 years ago.

“CIOs are faced with the challenge of obtaining buy-in from top level executives in governing IT projects to ensure that these projects remain on track and the risk of failure is appropriately mitigated,” she wrote. “These challenges are due, in part, to the limited authority and involvement CIOs have in overseeing these projects.”

Of a handful of agency CIOs actually meet the letter of the Clinger-Cohen law.

Roger Baker, the Veterans Affairs Department chief information officer and assistant secretary for information and technology, is one of them.

Congress gave the VA CIO oversight of the entire $3.2 billion IT budget.

“I don’t think there should be any question as whether we should do this across government,” he said at a recent Fedscoop conference in Washington. “In three-and-a-half years, and from my view, almost solely because of the consolidated IT appropriation, the improvement of IT at VA has been in orders of magnitude, delivery of software, quality of metrics of availability, information protection, financial control and all the sort of things taxpayers ought to care a lot about. And by the way, we saved a couple hundred millions of dollars along the way. It all stems from the fact that a central CIO, who frankly cares a lot about customer service, has control over those things and can enforce enterprisewide policies that make sense.”

Baker said he’s pushing for the CIOs to have more authority and more control over not just the IT budget, but all aspects of agency technology.

“If you look at the VA as the pilot project for how do we really address the IT issues across the government,” he said. “You would say this pilot has succeeded. It’s a much more disciplined organization. We deliver more things for our customers today than we did in the 2006 timeframe.”

The Homeland Security Department’s CIO is one of few others with budget authority. DHS gave its CIO the oversight starting in 2009.

The Interior Department in January consolidated its CIO organization and gave its technology executive ultimate influence over the department by controlling all infrastructure systems and IT procurement.

But many agency CIOs are facing less authority and less influence. Some agency CIOs report not to the secretary as required by Clinger-Cohen, but to an assistant secretary or even the chief financial officer.

Former agency CIOs say too many secretaries and deputy secretaries don’t understand the role IT plays even though they use it every day and it’s integral to their agency’s mission.

Baker said to give CIOs more authority and control of the IT budget will require the administration, the agency secretary and Congress to come together.

“As you know, there are a lot of constituencies on the Hill for the administrations and other folks,” Baker said. “There will be a lot of arguing about why IT should not be consolidated from those constituencies. But when you look at the cold hard facts at this point about how VA has changed in the three years since consolidation has occurred. To me it’s become unarguable that we will get better results from IT investments under consolidated IT appropriation than a distributed IT appropriation.”

As part of the Office of Management and Budget’s authority over their agency’s budget for commodity technology, such as e-mail, storage and infrastructure.

Along with the request to Congress for more budget authority, OMB wants CIOs to focus more on execution and less on policy. It plans on testing this flexible budget concept with the departments of Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security and Interior, Kundra said.

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