US federal CIO? 'Someone from Google or Facebook will be eaten alive'

The selection of US Chief Information Officer must be an innovative Washington IT insider. Anyone else is doomed to fail.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Following the departure of Steven VanRoekel, the Obama administration is evaluating candidates to fill the role of US federal CIO.

Aside from the symbolism as national IT leader, the federal CIO oversees an information technology budget of almost $80 billion. Given the growing importance of technology to national competitiveness, innovation, and efficiency the position has particular significance and meaning.

The Obama administration faces a fundamental choice right now on whom to choose: Bring in a Washington IT insider or choose someone from West Coast – San Francisco or Seattle.

The advantage of a Silicon Valley star is the possibility of fresh ideas and best practices. In addition, he or she may be willing withstand pressure from the "IT cartels," as former US CIO Vivek Kundra described incumbent technology vendors and service providers that wield excessive influence over procurement. However, since only two years remain in Obama’s term, an outsider federal CIO will find it almost impossible to make a meaningful impact.

Therefore, Washington should choose a federal IT insider to fill the US CIO role, for these reasons:

  1. Federal IT faces significant complexity in areas related to procurement, communication, and collaboration across agencies and departments. These issues are not specific to technology and can only be overcome with political experience and leveraging existing relationships.

  2. During the next two years, the federal CIO must shape policy and drive consensus despite budgets that are already fixed. Only an insider has the detailed process knowledge, and established organizational relationships, needed to hit the ground running.

  3. Pockets of innovation excellence do exist in the federal government. The White House should recognize, encourage, and reward accomplished leaders already working inside government.

The administration should recruit its next federal CIO from the ranks of federal IT. I say this as someone whose work on CIO innovation, IT failures, and enterprise software has been referenced in the press about 1,000 times and in more than 40 books.

To elaborate further on the need to appoint a federal IT insider, I asked three respected and well-known technologists for their views.

Dr. John Halamka is one of the most prominent healthcare CIOs in the world. His accomplishments include CIO of Harvard Medical School, CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (a major teaching hospital system), professor at Harvard Medical School, and leadership of several health technology standards bodies. In addition, he has worked closely with government groups and served as a policy advisor on healthcare technology to both the Bush and Obama administrations. Halamka was also a guest on CxO-Talk.

Halamka offers the following advice to make the federal CIO position successful:

I always support the federal government but bold new ideas get lost in the complexity of procurement, contract management, and getting stakeholders to agree. Navigating the US government is difficult and complicated, and an outsider from Google or Facebook is likely to be eaten alive. Only an insider can navigate the process while offering new ideas and approaches.

Richard Spires is former CIO for the Department of Homeland Security and a rumored potential candidate. A consummate insider, he now runs an early-stage technology firm, Resilient Network Systems. Spires comments on the federal CIO role:

With only two years left in the administration, it is difficult for someone to step in and gain momentum, let alone drive meaningful change.

To help make progress, they should bring in someone with significant IT leadership experience in federal government. That person will understand the issues and complexities – how things are done – to be productive in a couple of months. Someone from the outside, without that background, will require a year to get up to speed.

The US CIO should be driving significant change in federal IT. Right now, we spend too much on operations and maintenance, which squeezes out innovation. The new CIO should work with the Agencies and Congress to refocus the appropriations process to drive IT infrastructure consolidation and more aggressive movement to cloud computing. Further consolidation should be driven in the back office, to include financial and human resources systems. While such consolidation cannot be completed in two years, the next Federal CIO can make demonstrable progress if there is senior White House and OMB support.

Craig Newmark is best-known for founding craigslist, the popular San Francisco-based website that still bears his name, even though he has not been a spokesperson for the site in years. Since 2009, Newmark has advised federal agencies on technology innovation, including the VA Center for Innovation, US Digital Service (18F), HHS, SBA, CFPB, and others.

Given Newmark’s position as a prominent outsider strongly connected to federal IT, I asked for his thoughts on the US CIO:

In Washington, technology is easy compared to working with agencies, regulations, legal requirements, and procurement processes. We need someone who can get around in D.C., working with multiple constituencies, and who knows when to get out of the way.

Considering these constraints, Newmark offers for his pick for the next federal CIO:

I’ve worked with David Bray, who is CIO of the Federal Communications Commission — seen him get stuff done and inspire my fellow nerds online.

[Dr. David Bray, CIO at the FCC, is also a rumored candidate for federal CIO. He was a CxO-Talk guest and appeared a second time with another rumored candidate, Dr. Alissa Johnson, who is Deputy CIO for the Executive Office of the President.]

The bottom line. The White House should select the smartest, most innovative senior leader working inside federal IT today – there is no better option.

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