Federal IT Flunks Out

That's the headline on CIO's cover story this month, and it is a hard-hitting analysis of the failure of the Clinger-Cohen Act and the system of federal CIOs.

In his cover story for CIO, Federal I.T. Flunks Out, Allan Holmes leads off with a telling story about the farewell party for Dan Matthews, CIO for the Transportation Dept. for three years.

John Flaherty, chief of staff for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, stood up to say a few words about Matthews' accomplishments, pointing out that Matthews was always quick to help Mineta when his BlackBerry wasn't working.

Flaherty wasn't kidding. .... [The] comment [is a perfect illustration of why IT at the federal level is so troubled. Government CIOs are still seen as guys who fix BlackBerrys.

"Agency executives know that CIOs provide a vital resource to organizations—they just don't know what it is," Matthews wrote in an e-mail about the incident.

That's not how it's supposed to be. The Clinger-Cohen Act, created 10 years ago, was supposed to make CIOs strategic partners in agency management. Right. If you wonder if there's really a problem, consider:

[O]f 16 IT projects in the Federal Aviation Administration's massive 25-year-old modernization program, 13 are over budget, ranging from $1.1 million to $1.5 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Army's Future Combat System—a fully integrated set of networks to deliver real-time information to the battlefield through sensors that pinpoint high-tech weapons—could come in as much as $130 billion over its original 2001 budget estimate of $70 billion. The Interior Department's IT systems have proved so insecure that over the past three years a federal judge has repeatedly ordered the department to shut down all its Internet access. The list goes on, with the IRS's repeated failures to modernize and the disaster of the FBI's virtual case file system merely two of the most well-publicized examples.

In all, from January 2004 through March 2006, the GAO issued 98 reports on federal IT management, with almost every blue-covered report finding serious management flaws that increased the risk of IT failures.

Holmes identifies four fundamental problems with the system, which we'll look at in future posts: lack of authority, politics as usual, bureaucracy, and paperwork. Is this what government work is all about?

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