Be a CIO, not a CI-No

July 2009
By Christopher J. Dorobek

Agency information technology executives have to find ways to be enablers ... securely.

For federal chief information officers (CIOs), it is the best of times and the worst of times. The broader, less literary question is: Do CIOs matter?

It is clear why it is the best of times for CIOs. The much-debated Nicholas Carr question, “Does IT Matter?” has been answered decisively, at least for the Obama administration. That answer, both in words and actions, is not only that it matters but also that they expect information technology to keep going. Technology increasingly has become a key enabler in helping agencies accomplish their missions. There is almost no way to accomplish transparency, for example, without technology.

But opportunity also presents significant challenges. Government 2.0 can make—or break—CIOs. More and more, people look at information technology as a commodity, and it is unusual that executives heading up commodities have a seat among an organization’s senior leadership. But the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, one of the seminal pieces of legislation for government information technology, requires that big agencies have CIOs.

Several converging issues have played a role in dredging up this quixotic debate. One clearly was the appointment of Vivek Kundra, the former chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., as the nation’s first federal CIO. The other is the matter of the evolution of Government 2.0.

Many people suggested that Kundra’s appointment was a semantic change. Technically, of course, Kundra holds the same position as his predecessor, Karen Evans: He serves as the Office of Management and Budget’s administrator of e-government and information technology. But this is not much ado about nothing. Titles do matter if for nothing more than what they say about the priorities of an organization.

The Obama administration has made it clear—in titles and in actions—that it appreciates the value information technology provides. Two early and powerful actions have made clear the Obama link between information technology and governing. Perhaps one of the most powerful actions was when President Obama insisted—demanded—that he have a personal digital assistant. That single action spoke volumes about how core information technology is to the country’s new chief executive. It said that he understood the security concerns inherent with many technologies, but it also said that “no” was not an option.

Another action was the creation of a White House new media office and the appointment of the Obama campaign’s new media guru, Macon Phillips, as its leader. Creating the Obama CIO, the White House Office of New Media and the Obama chief technology officer (CTO) were not just semantic steps. The leaders of those organizations—Kundra, Phillips and CTO Aneesh Chopra, respectively—understand that their job is not about information technology. Their success or failure will depend on the government’s ability to carry out its mission. And, in a significant step, it links responsibility with authority.

This Team Obama mantra poses an opportunity and a challenge to CIOs. It has an important impact for government CIOs and for the government information technology community, and yes, that includes industry. These are challenging times to be information technology executives. Just when people thought the pace of innovation could not move any faster, it has kicked up several notches. In recent years, innovation has evolved less from—or for—the enterprise and more for the consumer. A whole host of applications are evolving, many of them Web-based, that enable people to carry out important initiatives.

In some ways, CIOs have been focused inward; they have had to keep the BlackBerrys and information technology network up and running. But increasingly, they are being pressed to focus on tools that further enable agencies to carry out their missions and to become even more core to the mission. But too often, CIOs are not the enablers. Many information technology organizations become “no zones,” and the CIO becomes the CI-No. When personnel go to their information technology organization with an idea, they are told all the reasons they cannot do something. And that is particularly true with Web 2.0 applications because of security concerns.

A case in point is from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA). A few years ago, TSA staff wanted to start a blog. They went to their information technology shop and were told that it could be built, but it would cost thousands of dollars. Somebody rightfully said, “Um, isn’t Blogger free?” Thankfully, the TSA program people found a crafty information technology person who made it happen.

Kundra suggests that the TSA story needs to be the exception to the rule or that CIOs will be irrelevant. CIOs do not and should not be seen as people to avoid because they only make initiatives more difficult. To the contrary, they should be the agency enablers, finding new ways to use technology and helping program personnel to use these new technologies in safe ways. The focus should be on relevance. The focus should be on innovation. The focus should be on adding value. And the focus should be on ensuring that information technology organizations are can-do shops, not the home of the CI-No.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Washington, D.C.’s Federal News Radio 1500 AM.

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Share Your Thoughts:

Chris, good column. I probably don't has as much of an appreciation for the role of a CIO as you do, but there clearly is a role for "No" in CIO as you point out this week in your Dorobek Insider blog, where you mention the Veterans Affair's CIO, Roger Baker, halting 42 IT programs because they were over budget or overdue.

I know that you're talking in this column about encouring new initiatives and ways of using technology to advance an agency's mission. But it seems to me that much of a CIO's time is probably spent on large IT programs and ensuring that they stay on track, on budget and that vendors are delivering to the government what they're contractually obligated to provide. As one CIO told me, "Vendors are always trying to rip us off."

"No" can therefore be a powerful word.

Bill - I think you're generally correct, but I think there is a real evolution going on. My sense is "big" systems are going to actually be focused on big problems, and we can use simple software -- maybe even free software. In the case of the TSA blog, we're not talking about a big system, but in too many instances, IT organizations feel the need to control. Now, more then ever, they need to be seen as the place the rest of the organization goes when they are looking for innovation.