CIOs on the move: High rate of senior IT executive departures in 2014 cuts both ways

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wfedstaff | April 18, 2015 12:10 am

Steve VanRoekel. Casey Coleman, Todd Park. Bernie Mazer. Simon Szykman.

These were just five of the 23 federal chief information officers and other senior IT leaders who left their positions in 2014.

Turnover at the CIO position is not uncommon. But the data and analysis of this exodus show a combination of encouraging and disturbing trends.

Federal News Radio has been tracking the turnover of CIOs and other senior level IT officials between November 2013 and October 2014.

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All combined, the 23 total CIOs or senior IT leaders that either left government or changed jobs within government had 96 years of experience and their average tenure was 4.2 years.

Federal News Radio tracked CIO and other senior level IT executive departures between November 2013 and October 2014.

But current and former CIOs say there wasn’t one overriding reason for the mass exodus.

The causes of such a large amount of turnover among senior IT executives are many and varied. Former CIOs and other observers say the CIO job has gotten more difficult over the years.

Others say the economy improved in 2014, meaning there are more opportunities for senior executives in industry.

And several pointed out that the aging of the workforce means more long-time feds took advantage of their eligibility for retirement.

“The reason why I would say it’s a tougher job today is there are a couple of things because one, the CIO’s job in the public sector is a little bit different than the private sector,” said Karen Evans, a former administrator of e- government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget and a former federal CIO. “I know everybody says it’s the same, but it is different because of the accountability mechanism for the CIO in the public sector. With the 24-hour news cycle, with GAO, your inspector general and how the whole news cycle works. At least during my tenure, the 24-hour news cycle was just coming in and we were working 24/7 but at least we had a little bit of a break between when a news story would hit and when we would have time to make correction actions. CIOs today don’t have a break.”

Evans said the evolution of technology, including the constant cyber and physical threats that CIOs have to deal with, all add to the stress and complexity of the job.

Staying longer than ever

For Casey Coleman, who spent seven years as the General Services Administration’s CIO, her decision to leave in January 2014 had more to do with personal goals.

“I had been feeling for probably a year before I actually made a transition that it was personally time for me to think about doing something different, challenging myself in new ways, developing new skills, continuing to grow professionally,” Coleman said. “I had been thinking about it for some time before I found the right opportunity, and I might even have stayed even longer because I was very happy at GSA if I hadn’t found what was the right move for me here at AT&T Government Solutions.”

For Simon Szykman, he left as the CIO at the Commerce Department after four years. Szykman said his decision was based on timing.

“It wasn’t as much of an issue of being worn out as it was an issue of timing, partly for me to find something new but also there had been a lot of work over the year-and-a-half prior to my departure in the area of IT portfolio management, setting up policy, doing planning and at some point you have to move from planning to execution,” said Szykman, who left Commerce in August and joined Attain as its chief technology officer later in 2014. “If you are going to stay through an execution phase, that’s going to be another long-term commitment to the agency and so there is a timing issue that comes up. At what point is there a good break point to transition from one CIO to a successor CIO. That was another thing that played into my timing was it felt like it was a good time to turn things over to somebody new to keep carrying things forward.”

Coleman and Szykman are but two examples of what seems like a mass exodus of CIOs and other senior level IT officials from government.

Historical data of CIOs’ tenure to compare 2014 to previous years doesn’t readily exist. The last time the Government Accountability Office looked at CIO tenure was in 2011. Auditors found the average length of time CIOs stay in their job was just over two years.

But anecdotally, long-time federal IT community members agreed that 2014 saw an especially high CIO turnover rate.

“There are multiple forces at work. First off, these are tough jobs so there is this, ‘I had a great run,’ and then the burnout recharge factor. Four years in these jobs I found was an interesting time,” said Dave Wennergren, a former Navy CIO, Defense Department deputy CIO and now vice president for technology at the Professional Services Council, an industry association. “For political appointees, people are now making choices about whether you are going to stay until the end of the administration or move out now because it’s not good form to leave with less than a year to go. For career civil servants, there are several additional factors. First off, it’s a pinnacle job for some technology leaders. Where else in government do might you want to go once you’ve been a CIO? So you may choose to leave government. And frankly, shutdown, furloughs, sequestration, no raises, it’s not been a very conducive environment for people wanting to stay. Workforce 101 is retaining a workforce and involves ensuring people feel that their contributions and sacrifices are valued.”

Wennergren, who also is a member of the CIO Sage program at the Partnership for Public Service, referred to the workforce 101 rule of making sure contributions are valued, which for many form CIOs wasn’t happening as often or as well as they’d like.

Lack of top cover for some

Former CIOs say the lack of managerial support was one major reason for some of the turnover. But to be clear, they said it was one of many factors.

One former CIO, who requested anonymity, said there were too many occasions when they were trying to do what was right, but were not able to get the support they needed from their agency’s senior leaders or from OMB.

Another former CIO agreed with that assessment. This former CIO called the support from OMB underwhelming as they were trying to make some major changes within their former agency.

The source says when CIOs needed help, the silence from OMB was deafening.

A third former CIO offered the administration’s lack of support for the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which became law in December, rang hollow across the IT community. The former executive added the diminished IT management vision over the last few years from OMB also impacted CIO effectiveness and created frustrations.

Mark Forman, a former OMB administrator of e-government and IT, who helped write the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 that established the authorities of CIOs in law, said the success of the CIO is tightly coupled with relationships across their agency and within the government at large.

“On the one hand, part of what could be happening, and I know it has in certain instances, there is a change in leadership in the department or agency and new people come in as leaders and they naturally want their own people, or you feel now is a good time to move on because you were a team with the secretary or agency head and that person has moved on so you should move on,” said Forman, who now is vice president for IT services and cloud initiatives at TASC. “By the same token, it doesn’t matter whether it’s government or industry, the desire to bring in fresh blood with new ideas when a new leader comes in and while that can’t be a blanket given the list of people, I have no doubt that plays in to some of this calculus as well.”

No matter the reason CIOs and other senior IT leaders left government, the impact on programs and projects can be severe.

OMB spokesman Jamal Brown said the CIO Council is leading the effort to ensure a smooth transition.

He said the council has an onboarding process in which staff works directly with new CIOs to orient them to the administration’s priorities.

The council also introduces new CIOs to some of their peers, exposes them to a library of best practices housed in the council’s knowledge portal, and helps to introduce them to the federal IT community.

Even with this help from the CIO Council, Evans said agency succession plans are a mixed bag. Some agencies do quite well, which leads to IT programs not missing a beat. While others struggle, leaving a long term impact on the agency’s technology projects.

Openings remain across 6 agencies

At GSA, Coleman says she took a short and long term view to make sure her agency stayed on track.

“Just in general, some of the things I tried to do was delegate and try to empower people, make sure I’m not the only one who knows about critical projects, make sure that others in the leadership team are empowered to go to key meetings, and to speak for the organization and have clear understanding of what they are empowered to do so that they can execute, take some chances and be responsible in a way that prepares them to step into the next leader’s role, if necessary,” she said. “We did things like swap assignments. We had executive coaching to help people with individual growth. We did a lot of bringing in analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester to help us understand what best-in-class IT organizations look like, and how is the IT organization changing.”

At Commerce, Szykman says he announced his decision to leave in January, but stayed on until the new CIO, Steve Cooper, was settled in during the summer.

“We certainly did make sure all the hot issues were teed up for early discussion and early education of Steve when he came in. We wanted to make sure he knew what was already moving and what kind of momentum we had,” he said. “On the other hand, I was careful to not to undermine Steve’s future ability to lead the organization with his own vision. I wanted to make sure he had the opportunity to understand how things looked when he was coming in, what was going on, but at the same time have the opportunity to change direction if he needed to. So one of the things I worked with my folks on was getting him the ability to establish his own direction as the CIO for the organization.”

Commerce filled its CIO position quickly, but that’s not always the case. Of the 23 positions that opened up during the 12 month period from November 2013 to October 2014, six of those positions remain vacant today. Those that still are open include the Defense Department, the federal CIO and the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Agencies filled several of the open jobs just in the last few months, meaning there were acting senior executives for much of the year.

Wennergren said that any CIO position that remains open for a significant amount of time, specifically a career positions, should be a warning sign as to how the agency believes in the value of the CIO.

“There are just three basic criteria that help drive people’s interest in a job like this: Who do you get to work for? Who do you get to work with? What do you get to work on?” he said. “Depending on how you can answer those questions, if you are a federal agency CIO and the head of the agency has your back and is excited about the technology portfolio and wants to help change with you, then what a great environment to go work with, and if you are going to work on things that make an important difference, then I think the job has a lot of luster. But I think for each of the CIO jobs, you’d probably want to do that internal calculus right now to decide whether or not that particular CIO job has the luster that it once did.”

OMB spokesman Brown said the administration is trying to address a potential lack of luster. He said the U.S. Digital Service has been charged with helping to eliminate barriers to IT hiring and retention such as exploring ways to bring greater flexibility to the federal hiring process.

He said the White House also is working to improve the hiring process, creating a culture of engagement through data-driven approaches to management and building a world-class Senior Executive Service.

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