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Re-Evaluating the C-Suite: The Role of CIO for a 21st Century Government*

January 11, 2016


One of the major tasks confronting all new political executives will be to make sure that they have the right people in the right job with the right portfolios. This article will focus on the role of the Chief Information Officer in government.


In several recent magazine columns and blog postings, I have lamented the federal government’s failure to follow through and fully implement the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996 (the Clinger-Cohen Act). I have gone on to argue that after 16 years, it is time to admit we failed and just start over. Just several months back, the Government Accountability Office weighed in on the same topic with their report, “Federal Chief Information Officers (CIO’s): Opportunities Exist to Improve Roles in Information Technology Management”. The GAO report concludes that CIO’s haven’t been properly empowered, they don’t have the full array of responsibilities needed to do their jobs, they report at too low a level to be effective, and they don’t stay long enough to make a difference.

Think of how the world of government IT is different today than in the mid-1990’s – powerful new technologies, cloud computing, mobility, big data, ever present security problems, the blurring of lines between business and personal use, flat or declining IT budgets, virtualization, and on and on. We need a 21st century CIO to deal with these challenges in this disruptive age. And we need that CIO in a modern management structure. Here are some framing thoughts for such a structure and the new 21st century CIO in the hopes that this issue can be addressed by the Administration in 2013.

The issue is not really or solely the role of the CIO, but the lack of continuous management improvement across government; that generally involves IT because government is information intensive. The need is to align budgets, technology, people and acquisitions to achieve program goals, thus a holistic management approach.

Senior management leadership continuity is essential to insure successful execution of both the agency mission as well as to make sustained and measurable improvement to both mission and operational performance. That includes the introduction of new business processes, modern financial and business systems and other technology enabled advances. That should be done through the creation of a Chief Management Officer (CMO) within all major departments and agencies, to serve a 10-15 year term akin to that of the Controller-General, the head of the Government Accountability Office. All management and administrative positions should report to the CMO – finance, budget, IT, acquisitions, human resources, information security, the chief performance officer, the assistant secretary for administration, and so on – and all these positions should be filled from career SES ranks. For this Commentary, I am focusing on the on the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO).

Each CIO will report directly to the CMO and will assume five functions:

  • Strategic use of technology, with primary responsibility for identifying leading practices that utilize IT to improve mission performance;
  • Management and maintenance of the IT infrastructure;
  • Identification, deployment, management, measurement and (if applicable) scaling new technologies and applications;
  • Management of the Agency Transformation Fund, a proportion of the agency IT budget which is set aside for new starts; and
  • Information security.

Both the Chief Technology Officer and the Chief Information Security Officer will report to the CIO. The current C-Suite operation is not working. It is now time to reevaluate these positions.

*Acknowledgement here to two pillars of the Federal IT establishment. Mark Forman and Paul Brubaker, who have held major leadership roles in government and were key Hill staffers when the original ITMRA legislation was crafted and passed. They have played a major role in shaping these ideas over the last several months.

Alan P. Balutis is Senior Director and Distinguished Fellow, Cisco Business Solutions Group. He is also a Felow of the National Academy of Public Administration.