CIOs ponder change and vision on the job

Thursday - 7/1/2010, 6:37am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

In February 1996, Congress approved the Clinger-Cohen Act. Along with redefining how the federal government buys and manages its information technology, the act also mandated a new public official to be the manager: the chief information officer.

"The way I look at my job is to basically work the magic, to deliver against those expectations," quipped Joe Klimavich, CIO and director of High Performance Computing and Communications with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Department of Commerce, at breakfast discussion in Washington yesterday sponsored by Government Executive magazine. "If you tell someone you're going to deliver something a year from now, they kind of look at you, like, what's wrong with you? They want it delivered next week."

As one of the agencies providing support to efforts to stem the flow of oil from the broken well in the Gulf, Klimavich says NOAA faces that kind of challenge every day.

Susan Swart, the State Department's CIO, says one way in which the CIO's job has changed since Clinger-Cohen is in its complexity.

"We've always been there to provide technology to our agencies that deliver against the mission. But the definition of what that means has changed. It's shifted from providing basic infrastructure services, just connectivity," to being the agency resource for everything from smart phones to cloud computing to enterprisewide data storage.

Swart says she can remember a time when the simple act of being able to provide a dial tone to an overseas diplomatic facility constituted success within State's network.

Over the last several weeks, the Office of Management and Budget, has turned its budget-cutting eye on federal IT spending. OMB has issued two memos directing agencies to re-evaluate current IT projects, and especially mandating a faster, cheaper modular upgrade path for financial management systems. Those systems in the past often took more than a decade in some instances, to implement, and by the time they officially launched, did so with obsolete technology.

Dave Wennergren, the Defense Department's deputy CIO, explains how the time has changed the scale of both the job and the projects CIOs now manage.

"For so many years, the answer has always been to build a big system," he says. "Fourteen years ago, the world was highly-localized: local area networks, local area applications, the beauty of that was a scale that was easily manageable. But the downside was, you created this duplication of effort, and then you had these information stovepipes, because these local applications weren't connected together."

Wennergren says he can trace the complexity, the long development times and the cumbersomeness and higher-than-average failure rates of many of these systems to the "big system" syndrome that the White House is trying to overturn.

Richard Spires, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security, makes the case that the recent flurry of IT-related guidance from OMB is actually, a good thing, and in fact, may help CIOs who are sometimes ignored by their C-level bosses, or worse, ignored and marginalized.

"If they won't listen to us, they certainly will listen to OMB," he says. "There's a lot coming at us from OMB right now, but that said, I do think the stuff that's come out this week is spot on."

Spires says he has problems with many IT projects at DHS, and has even run his own program reviews of internal projects. He says such internal and external reviews have forced business units that use IT to get involved in the development of such projects, in ways that they have not previously been involved.

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