Federal CIOs have the most challenging jobs in the industry. Here’s why

A modern CIO manages the company’s information technology strategy and how it supports the enterprise as a whole.

A modern CIO manages the company’s information technology strategy and how it supports the enterprise as a whole. A CIO at a commercial company can streamline IT and influence the business in close to real-time as the company moves its digital strategy forward.

Federal CIOs, however, have particular challenges that impede digital transformation. In fact, it would be safe to say the toughest CIO job is that of a federal CIO.

The current landscape of a federal agency consists overwhelmingly of legacy infrastructure and siloed strategies, per a Gartner 2021 survey. Today, government agencies have challenges adopting modern, cloud-based SaaS applications, resulting in a slow modernization process, trailing commercial industry and best security practices.

I held discussions with several federal CIOs to learn their top pain points:

  • Software acquisition/compliance
  • Funding
  • Security/cyber threats
  • Skills gap

While the first step is for government to update legacy infrastructure, funding and software acquisition, federal CIOs can be ready to act with a strategy to organize their data.

Software acquisition/compliance

A CIO at a tech company might find a tool or SaaS solution that could improve efficiency and cut costs, resulting in a rapid return on investment. A commercial CIO likely has a budget and the authority to rapidly acquire and implement the solution.

A federal CIO might find the same tool; however, the process of getting funding, acquiring the software, training the team, and implementing the solution is more difficult to enact, starting with finding solutions that meet federal security regulations.

Software acquisitions for a federal CIO’s IT stack is a long process with various checks and balances to ensure fairness in the acquisition process. The solution has to meet the applicable federal regulatory compliance for security, be that FedRAMP, complying with the DoD SRG or ICD-503, all stringent requirements that are required prior to implementing a cloud service offering.

Out of an estimated 20,000 SaaS solutions, only 283 companies are FedRAMP authorized, and fewer are FedRAMP high, limiting the choices for a federal CIO. Even fewer of those meet the DoD’s SRG requirements. The federal agency’s process of certifying a new solution takes an enormous investment in time, expertise and resources, and the process of approving a vendor can easily take more than a year to complete.


Though the federal government committed $1 billion to artificial intelligence research and development across agencies in 2021, according to Bloomberg Government, federal CIOs have to balance the investment in modernization versus keeping things running.

Because there is a strict federal budget, many CIOs feel overburdened and underfunded. With the need to comply with the Office of Management and Budget’s mandates such as the IT Dashboard, M-21-31, and FITARA (the federal IT scorecard), it can be challenging to introduce new products and deliver new services to departments.

Plus, because federal agencies request budgets five years in advance, it can be difficult to foresee what products or initiatives IT will need so far in the future and to get projects approved with various checks and balances.


Since government was the first large user of computers, data centers were stood up everywhere, creating islands of data, making it expensive, harder to protect, and impossible to analyze.

Foreign state actors seeking to upset the U.S. economy or gain an intelligence advantage have exploited the situation as the legacy environments with old infrastructure, outdated architecture and siloed data present security risks that can lead to cybersecurity breaches.

Moreover, departments can benefit from sharing data, but issues with secure collaboration present security challenges preventing departments or multiple agencies from efficiently sharing information that could ultimately provide greater insight. Data is frequently shared via FTP placing the data “in the wild,” creating a considerable disconnect between federal CIOs communicating, sharing and collaborating on findings and insights. Maintaining security is a full-time job, and it takes away from the time and money that would otherwise be spent on modernizing technology.

Skills gap

Another issue for federal CIOs is a lack of skill, as the technology is changing so rapidly that it’s hard to find employees adept at working with data architectures.

A federal position is a stable position, and many IT professionals spend their entire careers with the government. Employee longevity reduces the government’s opportunity to infuse new personnel trained in the latest technologies.

The solution? Time to modernize the federal CIO dataset

Federal agencies can modernize their analytics environment while they’re updating their legacy transactional systems. They can essentially do this by automating the migration and consolidation of these legacy islands to a new platform without modifying the legacy system. Data management architectures, like the lakehouse, combine the best features of a data warehouse and a data lake in the cloud. Agencies can exploit semi-structured and unstructured data and complement retrospective analytics with predictive analytics.

Federal agencies, from the intelligence community to DoD to civilian agencies, are already consolidating data in the cloud. They have AI/ML do risk analysis to improve supply chain vendor vetting and target fraud in the healthcare and tax systems, according to Federal News Network, further proving the need for investment in digital transformation.

Data and predictive analytics in the cloud can deliver actionable insights in real time for more informed decision-making resulting in better services, stronger national security, and smarter resource management.

Role of the future federal CIO

The Biden-Harris Administration addressed some of these issues in the President’s Management Agenda aiming to:

  • Improve and update the federal hiring process to stay competitive and “make every federal job a good job”
  • Modernize existing infrastructure and “strengthen data management practices”
  • Federate data for easier access and communication
  • Build more advanced data analytics capabilities
  • Establish mandates for modernization, data openness, and the progression of AI innovations

As federal agencies work on updating legacy systems as well as data management, and data science capabilities, federal CIOs must be ready to act with a tech stack and strategy to build a secure analytics environment.

Howard Levenson is general manager-area vice president of Databricks Federal, LLC.


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