Federal IT Problem #1: CIOs have no authority

In its cover story this month, CIO gives failing marks to federal IT and pinpoints several deep-rooted problems. Problem #1 is lack of CIO authority. Consider Steve Cooper, the Dept. of Homeland Security's first CIO.

In its cover story this month, CIO gives failing marks to federal IT and pinpoints several deep-rooted problems. Problem #1 is lack of CIO authority. Consider Steve Cooper, the Dept. of Homeland Security's first CIO. Since DHS was supposed to use IT to gather and share information across federal agencies and with state and local governments, the CIO would be a highly empowered, accountable executive with authority to implement the mission, right? Well ...

The DHS organizational chart doesn't even list the CIO position among the agency's 29 top senior positions. From the beginning, Cooper found himself locked out of key strategy meetings. And his budget requests—such as $39 million for network connections between DHS agencies—were summarily cut, in this case by $28 million, in a closed-door meeting that included [Cooper's direct boss] Janet Hale, DHS undersecretary of management. Cooper maintains he was afforded no opportunity to question the cut. "That one decision jeopardized the department from day one," Cooper says. "In most of the departments where the CIO does not report to the secretary, the CIO is marginalized."

But since then the situation has been addressed, no? Surely today the department realizes the importance of the CIO.

In his annual departmental report on management performance in December, DHS IG Richard Skinner stated bluntly that CIO Scott Charbo did not have the authority to do his job. "Despite federal laws and requirements, the CIO is not a member of the senior management team with the authority to strategically manage departmentwide technology assets and programs," Skinner wrote.

Critically, the lack of authority shows up in budgetary control. Although former IRS CIO John Reece got approval for funds to equip 14,500 agents with laptops instead of desktops, he didn't have control over spending and other IT managers quickly "siphoned off" the money "to pay for more employees to manage the existing legacy systems and the three desktop PCs needed to access them," CIO writes.

"This shows how little control I had," Reece says. "What laws the government has to oversee IT are totally ineffective, are not heeded and not enforced."

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