Mission impossible? White House looks for new CIO

As President Obama seeks a new U.S. Chief Information Officer, it's time to examine the opportunities and obstacles associated with this important role.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Among Chief Information Officers, the U.S. federal government CIO stands in the unusual position of being a national policy leader and operational executive overseeing a $75 billion IT budget [.XLS].

At the same time, the size and political complexity of this role present significant challenges to accomplishing meaningful change.


Recently, the second U.S. federal CIO, Steven VanRoekel, left his position to become Chief Innovation Officer for USAID. Among those whose names have been raised in speculation for the role are two former CxO-Talk guests: Dr. David Bray, CIO of the FCC, and Dr. Alissa Johnson, Deputy CIO of the White House.

As the White House seeks a new federal CIO, it is a worthwhile time to discuss this important role. Technically, the E-Government Act of 2002 PDF full-text download, created the office of the federal CIO and the CIO Council. The first person actually to use that title, however, was Vivek Kundra, who left the position to become an executive with salesforce.com. Steven VanRoekel was, therefore, the second to hold the title of U.S. federal CIO.

Just after leaving office, Vivek Kundra wrote a New York Times piece criticizing “IT cartels,” incumbent technology vendors and services providers who create inefficiency and unnecessary cost by wielding excessive influence over IT procurement. These inefficiencies show up as late, over-budget, and ineffective projects collectively known as IT failures. The long list of failures includes healthcare.gov and many others chronicled in this blog.

Vivek Kundra’s efforts to address the problems included creating the federal IT Dashboard, to bring transparency, and embracing a cloud-first policy. His leadership helped focus broad attention on the enormous problem of IT failures while giving government-scale credibility to the cloud and software-as-a-service.

These accomplishments are important because transparency and new models of computing are necessary foundations for the long-term reform of federal IT. However, despite his efforts, it is reasonable to question whether Kundra’s initiatives did much to reduce the number of failed IT projects. After all, high-profile project failures continue to this day. That said, the root cause of IT failures has little to do with technology, but results from organizational and procurement decisions spread throughout the government.

Projects fail when buyers procure technology and services without incorporating sufficient safeguards and accountability, on both the government and vendor sides. Policy decisions alone cannot solve this massive problem; it requires thousands of IT personnel throughout government to rethink how they buy and execute projects.

As the second U.S. CIO, building on the efforts of his predecessor, Steven VanRoekel, introduced several innovations. According to former White House CIO, Brook Colangelo, who is now Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at learning company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (and was also a guest on CxO-Talk), VanRoekel did a “great job.” Colangelo told me that VanRoekel accomplished three important things:

  • Raising the profile of federal CIO role

  • Creating a pipeline for talent with the Innovation Fellows program

  • Beginning an effort to transform federal procurement related to IT

Colangelo notes that both federal CIOs brought significant attention and openness to government IT: “Without people like Steve and Vivek, we would not have the opportunity to continue this conversation. They both fought to do innovative work while trying to keep the lights on.” He also explains the importance of the federal CIO:

Because of where the role sits, it is incredibly powerful. The federal CIO sets the IT budget for the entire government and has tremendous influence. For example, Vivek’s cloud-first policy helped spark a broader move toward the cloud.

Creating the U.S. Digital Service is one the important accomplishments in which VanRoekel participated. The Digital Service built a playbook of best practices for running technology and IT projects in government. It’s a practical guide to modern thinking about project management and digital transformation.

The playbook is consistent with another federal organization, the 18F group, hosted by the General Services Administration, which tries to bring current methods to digital services in the government. Yet another playbook, for modern practices related to Federal Acquisition Regulation, called the TechFAR playbook, looks at federal technology procurement from an Agile perspective. All these initiatives demonstrate pockets of significant innovation within federal IT.

Despite innovation going on in parts of the federal government, changing the system remains a formidable task, so I asked Alex Howard to place VanRoekel’s accomplishments into context. Howard is a columnist for TechRepublic and the founder of “E Pluribus Unum”, a publication focused the intersection of government, technology, civil society and digital journalism; he is also another past guest on CxO-Talk:

As U.S. CIO, Steven VanRoekel was a champion of many initiatives that improved how technology supports the mission of the United States government. He launched an ambitious digital government strategy that moved further towards making open data the default in government, the launch of the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and the successful Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and improved management of some $80 billion dollars in annual federal technology spending through PortfolioStat.

As was true for his predecessor, he was unable to create fundamental changes in the system he inherited. Individual agencies still have accountability for how money is spent and how projects are managed. The nation continues to see too many government IT projects that are over-budget, don’t work well, and use contractors with a core competency in getting contracts rather than building what is needed.

The U.S. has been unable or unwilling to reorganize and fundamentally reform how the federal government supports its missions using technology, including its relationship to incumbent vendors who fall short of efficient delivery using cutting-edge tech. The 113th Congress has had opportunities to craft legislative vehicles to improve procurement and the power of agency CIOs but has yet to pass FITARA or RFP-IT. In addition, too many projects still look like traditional enterprise software rather than consumer-facing tools, so we have a long way to go to achieve the objectives of the digital playbook VanRoekel introduced.

There are great projects, public servants and pockets of innovation through the federal government, but culture, hiring, procurement, and human resources remain serious barriers that continue to result in IT failures. The next U.S. CIO must be a leader in all respects, leading by example, inspiring, and having political skill. It’s a difficult job and one for which it is hard to attract world-class talent.

We need a fundamental shift in the system rather than significant tweaks, in areas such as open source and using the new Digital Service as a tool to drive change. The CIO must have experience managing multi-billion dollar budgets and be willing to pull the plug on wasteful or mismanaged projects that serve the needs of three years ago, not the future.

Let’s hope the next U.S. CIO can even start to fulfill these lofty aspirations.

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