John B. Owens II

John B. Owens II

Senior Vice-President, Enterprise Solutions Group

If you become a chief information officer at a federal agency, you’ll be sworn in and shown to your office on your first day. You’ll meet the agency chief of staff and other top officials. It will probably be dizzying and you might feel overwhelmed to meet the whip-smart professionals who selected you to join them as they serve the American people.

That will be your easiest day on this demanding, difficult, wonderful job. I speak from experience—when I came to CGI, I had just completed over nine years as CIO at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. From that perspective, I can offer a road map of sorts for the new CIO.

You won’t get a training course ahead of time, or be allowed to wade slowly into the water. You can expect to land in the deep end of the pool and be tossed a 100-pound weight—or a list of high-priority projects. While this list might turn out to be helpful, you will definitely want to verify those priorities—and their budget. Here are a few steps to help ground you in reality as you consider that list, navigate organizational politics and determine your path forward. 

Five steps to help navigate federal organizational politics

Make some friends

There are several key people with whom you will need to ally if you are to succeed. At a minimum, these include your agency’s chief procurement (or acquisition) officer, chief financial officer, head of human resources and union officials.  Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Chief Procurement Officer

Out of all of your agency leader friends, the head of procurement should be the best, especially if you are a new CIO with no prior government experience. Government procurement vastly differs from the private sector—it is more complex and subject to significantly more rules and regulations as defined in the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation).  You need a professional to guide you; violating procurement regulations, even inadvertently, can lead to problems for your agency or a room for you in a federal prison.

Chief Financial Officer

The CFO protects the agency’s funding and ensures lawful, fiscally responsible expenditures. Your job as the CIO requires spending money. To justify your spending and get the CFO’s approval, it helps to show you are gaining the most value possible from taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.  You, the CFO and CAO can create a great power team to help the politically appointed agency leaders institute real and lasting change.

Human Resources

This relationship is especially important for new CIOs who come from the private sector, because personnel matters are much different in the government. Your best chance of success lies in finding those people—whether leaders, managers or rank-and-file employees—who will help you in your efforts to legally hire, fire and replace employees.  Again, these processes differ from private industry.   An expert in human resource management will provide crucial support for your success.


There are many unions in the government, and your agency will most likely have a significant number of employee members. Unions carry many powers, including the ability to block or delay projects for years, if they do not like project conditions, even those completely unrelated to IT. On more than one occasion, a union held up one of my projects—not because they objected to the project, but because it gave them advantage in pressing their demands. 


As you begin to develop these relationships, you also should start to figure out what the organization needs. Evaluate the technology that supports the business. See what contracts you have and when they expire. At PTO, I had to re-procure everything in my first five years. You need to know if—and when--you will need to upgrade, replace or remove anything, and if you have the contracts and budget you need to do it.

Confront budget and staffing needs

To bring about positive changes, you will need to spend money. Expect to hire contractors and staff in order to develop and then accomplish an agenda. Your budget will fluctuate from one fiscal year to the next and you will need creativity to spread your dollars to meet your tech needs. You probably will have to modify some plans midstream when a new budget cannot support the original scope. You might re-appropriate or reclassify funds, shifting them into a project where they were not originally allocated. Your alliance with the CFO will prove crucial in navigating these complex procedures and staying within the bounds of federal law.   

Make a list

From all of the above, you can now make a list of the things you need to work on. I suggest you aim for quick win projects—sort the list by the likelihood of success, turnaround time and impact.

A few quick wins will help gain more friends and allies. One of the first things I did at PTO was to upgrade and fix the network. It was something the agency needed, and I was able to lead the effort to quickly solve some longstanding problems. Remember to plan for both the short term (now) and medium term (three years).  

Turn the list into a plan

Now—and not any sooner—develop a long-range plan. (You can also hire a consultant to help or do it for you, if you prefer.) Don’t make the plan a one-person operation; bring in employees to provide guidance. You may turn to trusted contractors, as well—I did.

Plan with an eye toward the skills your employees have. If you need people with skills that are missing from your current team, you will need to either hire new personnel or “borrow” them via contractors.

Expect to take three to six months to develop the plan and get all of the approvals you will need. Go for some of the quick wins even before you finish developing the plan. It will help build goodwill for your more ambitious—and expensive—goals. 


A CIO is tip of the spear in improving organizational services. The only reason you exist is to enact positive change. This will both make friends and earn enemies.

You will butt heads with the CFO and other leaders frequently, which makes building those relationships early so important. You will make progress in fits and starts, and you will encounter some defeats, both through projects failing and through higher-ups not approving projects in the first place.

No matter how well you do the job, after you finish it, somebody will come after it is all done and find things wrong. If you are not okay with that, do not be a CIO. As CIO, you are always trying something no one has ever done successfully, or maybe something no one else tried at all.

As I said at the beginning, a federal agency CIO position is a demanding, difficult, wonderful job. It requires a person who relishes challenge and change. For those who are suited for it, it is an experience of a lifetime.

About this author

John B. Owens II

John B. Owens II

Senior Vice-President, Enterprise Solutions Group

John B. Owens II leads the Enterprise Solutions Group (ESG) at CGI Federal, a wholly-owned U. S. operating subsidiary of CGI, Inc. , which serves CGI’s clients across civilian, defense and intelligence sectors of the U. S. federal government.