Ten federal chief information officers are working on their resignation letters. Sometime over the next 70 days, CIOs from the departments of Veterans Affairs to Commerce to Homeland Security to the federal CIO will notify the incoming Trump administration of their plans to leave their posts.
These 10 are politically appointed CIOs, and unlike most of their colleagues, they are out of a job after Jan. 20 — unless President Donald Trump asks them to stay on.
There isn’t anything surprising here. These 10 executives knew their fate when they took the job. But the question we come back to every four years is whether the CIO position should be politically appointed and/or Senate confirmed.
If you ask a CIO who was politically appointed, they likely will tell you having that title is a difference-maker in many regards. Roger Baker, the former VA CIO, has said over the years that being a CIO is less about technology and more about running a large company, so being a political appointee has its benefits.
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Others will tell you it’s not about the title, but the person in the position.
“If I was in charge, I’d ask those CIOs to stay on who accomplished the most results because there is very little about the IT domain in government that is truly political, therefore there should be little differentiation who a Republican and Democrat President would appoint,” said Tim Young, a former deputy federal CIO under the administration of President George W. Bush and now a principal with Deloitte Consulting. “Agnostic of whether or not the CIO is politically appointed or Senate confirmed or a career civil servant, in order for them to be successful as a federal CIO, they have to be able to build authentic alliances with individuals across political affiliations, agency boundaries and ideologies to include career civil servants, the Office of Management and Budget, Congress, industry and media.”
House lawmakers under early versions of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) tried to make all CIOs political appointees but that didn’t make it in the final bill.
But with a new President and a Congress spending more time on technology and cyber issues, the question is sure to come up again.
Under the Obama administration, the number of these positions ebbed and flowed, but overall grew to the 10 today.
The politically appointed CIOs are:
Mark Forman, a former administrator in the Office of E-Government and IT at OMB under the Bush administration, and now global head of public sector at Unisys Corp., said the most important attribute of any CIO is that they are the right person for the job.
“What is key for me is does the secretary or deputy secretary get involved and articulate the CIO’s roles and responsibilities, and do they hire the person to best support those roles and responsibilities,” Forman said. “Having seen CIOs at VA be high quality generally, it was because the secretary knew they had to vet somebody and there was a set of criteria. But at other agencies in a similar space, that has not been the case. I think it’s been a mixed bag. In the case of VA, there have been quality people with a track record of success, and, of course, Congress had to vet and approve them. There are other agencies where that hasn’t worked out as well.”
Forman added many times the question of whether to politically appoint or not politically appoint a CIO falls into the moral hazard dilemma.
“The assumption with a political appointee is the political appointee process will take care of finding the right person so the secretary or deputy secretary will not worry as much about finding the right person, and that could be a mistake,” he said.
Young echoed Forman’s call that the right person is the right person whether political or career.
He said recent attempts to make all cabinet agency CIOs political appointees is misguided for a simple reason.
“It’s based on an assumption that the title is more important than the qualification of the CIO and his or her results,” Young said. “The problem I personally have with mandating that all federal CIOs become political appointees is it disqualifies many highly qualified CIOs from serving in senior CIO positions in a government agency. It’s based on requirements that you serve at the pleasure of the president and have to resign at end of administration. But there are many examples of career Senior Executive Service members who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve and lead from the front.”
Young said career SESers bring an understanding of government most political appointees do not have by the basic fact, many haven’t served in government before.
“Individual career civil servant CIOs have a greater appreciation for the power of the institution and how to use the governance of the bureaucracy to impact change over time,” he said. “Some political appointees try to lead with a mandate and expect a large bureaucracy to fall in line, which I believe is naïve. So much of the technology transformation that happens in government is based on alliances, is based on strong and sustained leadership, and based on an ability to positively influence outcomes through personality. A title of politically appointed and Senate confirmed will not guarantee that.”
The question for President-elect Trump and those advising him on government management issues is whether to follow the lead of last two administrations where some CIOs were political appointees and some weren’t based to a great extent on the determination of the secretary. Or does the new administration take a different tact and make all CIOs political appointees.
Add that to a growing list of things to watch for 2017.