My colleague Kathleen Turco recently outlined the ways in which new authorities broaden the influence of federal chief information officers (CIOs), in particular the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) and the Modernizing Government Technology Act.

The White House upped the stakes for CIOs with an Executive Order (EO) issued a few months ago that seeks to:

  1. Empower agency CIOs to ensure that agency IT systems are secure, efficient, accessible and effective, and that such systems enable agencies to accomplish their missions
  2. Modernize IT infrastructure within the executive branch and meaningfully improve the delivery of digital services
  3. Improve the management, acquisition and oversight of federal IT

To accomplish this, the EO also ensures that the federal CIO reports directly to the agency head, serving as the primary strategic adviser on the use of IT. As federal CIOs have requested for years, this approach gives the CIO a “significant role” in planning, programming, budgeting and execution decisions.

Potentially, this EO could—finally—help agencies begin to significantly improve their perennially dismal grades on the FITARA Scorecard, which assigns letter grades to agencies in areas such as software licensing, modernizing government technology and cybersecurity.

What is measured can be managed. Of the 24 agencies subject to the FITARA Scorecard, none had an overall score of A, although most earned an A in one or more of the individual categories being graded.

In fact, agencies have been making progress, just not as much and not as fast as the government would like. Under the recent EO and the authorities cited earlier, agency CIOs have a better chance than ever of improving measureable performance.

The federal CIO historically has inhabited a vaguely-defined role with powers and responsibilities not always clearly defined. Add to that some number of CIOs who—at any given time have been newly appointed, fill the office in an acting capacity; or have agency leadership that chafes against a CIO exercising authority―and the prospect of strong IT leadership is remote.

Under the EO, the CIO and the agency head are held responsible for performance, which is exactly what the federal government needs to convince leadership to accept an empowered CIO.

However, even an empowered and accountable CIO can’t do it alone. Notably, a partnership needs to exist with the agency’s chief financial officer for cooperation and control. This not only helps the CIO oversee spending, but also provides control over the funds to stop shadow IT, eliminate duplicative projects and put a halt to failing efforts so that the funds can be allocated to projects more likely to succeed.

There are still reasons for concern. For instance, it will be hard to carry these changes forward without increasing the tenure of CIOs beyond two years. Continuity of leadership is important, and nothing in any of these changes is likely to extend beyond the typical tenure. Further, the CIO needs a talented and dedicated staff, and—given that federal pay scales do not seem to be likely to improve anytime soon—competing with the private sector for talent is going to remain a challenge.

Read my earlier post for more insights on change management and the role of the CIO in transforming agencies.

About this author

Picture of John B. Owens II

John B. Owens II

Vice President, Consulting

John is a vice president with CGI Federal’s Emerging Technologies Practice. Prior to joining CGI in 2017, Owens spent nine years as CIO at the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office, leading the agency’s adoption of innovative methods for software development, including agile and DevOps. ...

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