Does CIO stand for ‘chief information officer’ or ‘career is over’?

Commentary by Bob Woods
President of Topside Consulting

(This commentary is part of the special report, CIOs on the Move. Read Executive Editor Jason Miller’s in-depth article here.)

When I became the head of IT at the Federal Aviation Administration, someone inquired whether this was a reward for my achievements or punishment for my transgressions?

I replied I thought it was because I missed the meeting when the vote was taken.

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With the challenges that chief information officers face today, along with what looks like a reasonably robust turnover rate, it is worth asking whether becoming a CIO is worth the work and jeopardy it seems to entail.

Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting
Being the head of IT has never been easy in a federal agency.

Legislation since the middle of the 20th century has been reactive to some failure or set of failures perceived by Congress and others. The Brooks Act was in reaction to a growing and powerful computer industry dominated by IBM. The delegation of procurement authority process was done to counter the fears of monopoly and high costs. The General Services Administration was saddled with implementing the cumbersome requirements expected from Congress and the bill’s namesake, Jack Brooks.

As IT itself morphed from electronic data processing (EDP) to automatic data processing (ADP) to information resources management (IRM) to IT, changes surely had to be made to the Brooks Act.

In 1996 that change came in the form of the Clinger-Cohen Act (CCA). Agencies were now required to use IT in smart ways to redo their business processes to take advantage of technology and the substantial capital investment it required. CIOs were called for and the act itself required they report to the agency head.

Implementation was given to the Office of Management and Budget and the games within agencies began. Hundreds of CIOs sprang up. They were outnumbered only by lawyers in Washington.

Architecture requirements in CCA meant agencies had to plan. It didn’t mean they had to plan well and it didn’t mean that implementation had to be fast or effective.

CIOs faced unsure requirements with unsure deadlines with unsure outcomes. Agency leaders saw IT as something that could be delegated to staff and they could get back to running the agency. Failures were inevitable to happen and they did.

The spectacular size and noise of these failures got congressional attention along with attention from the public and the citizenry affected. Hearing the number of dollars spent on a failed or abandoned system were so large that it would make you doubt the accuracy of the quote.

“Who would quit after you’ve spent $300 million?”

“How could a system that important not be adequately tested?”

In the midst of much of the hellfire of the last two decades of the CCA, there always seemed to be a mystic on the corner with a water bottle. We needed this fix or that and you can get it from my company, software, technique, training or process. Usually, these approaches did not work, and the people working on the problem were ignored and moved on.

Now we have the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). No, it’s not the next generation of the Ford automobile — there was the Focus, the Fusion and now the FITARA.

But it is the next generation of IT legislation.

It is meant to help stem the tide of IT system failures and it is meant to bring talent, focus and logic to the IT world.

Is this good news or bad for the CIO that may not have answered the question I was asked in FAA?

FITARA requires that the CIO report to the agency head as CCA did. It also requires that they be politically appointed for cabinet agencies, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Whether FITARA will help or hurt CIOs will be proved in the pudding. Public administration professors have calculated that appointees stay in the job less than 30 months.

The eyeball test for CIOs lately would suggest that figure is not far off. So that means that CIOs will have a short window to get things done. Political appointees themselves often take four-to-eight months to get recruited, vetted and brought on board. Those are not reassuring numbers in a political system that thinks in 48-month terms.

For FITARA to make real change it will have to be done in stages.

Just as we advise CIOs that they must implement in modular steps, Congress would do well to do the same. FITARA should have a one-year anniversary hearing to correct the warts identified.

For example, maybe include a five-year appointment as part of the CIO term. That would allow the CIO time to get things done and still keep a sense of urgency on the table.

Perhaps a “stay bonus” that would be given at the end of the term based on results would motivate the CIO to be results and mission oriented. That bonus could be driven by the mission executives of that agency. Tying performance to outcomes is often discussed but seldom materializes.

For organizations to succeed, they need talent that is motivated to get the mission accomplished. The revolving door method of managing our talent is not working and FITARA doesn’t inherently fix that problem.

In general, FITARA also needs to address the overall shortage of recently skilled people in the workforce. Not dealing with this issue in FITARA and its future amendments will just make failures a permanent part of the professional landscape.

In general, FITARA is heading in the right direction but it’s not complete. Its greatest contribution is it shows the importance Congress attaches to IT and its impact on mission. The executive and legislative branches should spend at least some time following up on the legislation after it is passed. Otherwise, CIO could mean “Career Is Over” for agency CIOs.


Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting. He is a former federal official with the General Services Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Transportation where he worked in a variety of senior management and technology roles.

Other commentaries by Bob Woods:

What federal IT can learn from Inspector Clouseau

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