DorobekINSIDER: The role of the CIO – and NASA gives the CIO authority

Monday - 4/19/2010, 2:00am EDT

One of the longest running — and somewhat tedious — debates within the government IT community: Does the CIO have a ‘seat at the table.’ I say tedious, but… most people believe it is also critically important. And therefore it garners regular discussion. For example, I moderated a panel at the 2009 Management of Change conference that looked at the changing role of the CIO… NextGov executive editor Allan Holmes when he was at CIO magazine wrote one of the seminal articles on the role of the CIO back in 1996… and just earlier this month, FCW’s John Zyskowski wrote a thoughtful feature story, The CIO 14 years later: Power vs. paperwork.

Despite being around for more than a decade now — CIO posts were created by law in government agencies in 1996 as a result of the Clinger-Cohen Act — the CIO still doesn’t seem to have been fully integrated into the leadership team at most agencies. They aren’t the strategic visionaries that are pushing for an agencies use of technology to help it accomplish its mission more effectively.

There are scores of reasons for that — more of which I’ll detail below. But I think there are some systemic reasons… and things are changing — some good, and some not great.

I’d put the largely unexplained changes going on at the Agriculture Department in the “questionable” category given that, by all accounts, the USDA CIO has been downgraded within the organization. (Frustratingly, I have been unable to get somebody from USDA to explain the details of their reorganization, so it remains the subject of conjecture rather then public discussion. So much for government openness.)

But there has been a quite, fairly significant development at NASA. NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. has changed the organization chart to give the NASA CIO direct reporting authority to the NASA administration, industry sources tell me and NASA officials have confirmed. But, almost as important, Bolden has changed the reporting authority at the NASA centers around the country report to the NASA CIO with a “dotted line” reporting authority to the individual directors at the centers.

This is a powerful step.

I haven’t been able to determine if the NASA CIO has ‘the power of the purse’ — the Holy Gail in government terms. Currently, the CIO for the Department of Veterans Affairs has spending authority by law. The Homeland Security Department CIO had that authority by policy under former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. I have not been able to confirm if the current DHS CIO still has that authority.

It is an enormous step if Federal CIO Vivek Kundra wants to actually carry out some of his proposed changes — or any real changes, for that matter. Last week, I got to hear Kundra speak at the Brookings Institution about cloud computing — and he discussed a “cloud first” strategy where agencies will look at the cloud as an option. The fact is that this instituting this kind of change requires changing the “clay layer” within agencies — agency leaders get it, and front line works just want to be able to do their jobs. It is the “clay layer” that blocks much of the government change. And most people like the control and power that comes with having their own server nearby them.

There are many ways to deal with the clay, but… one way in government is through spending, and that requires that CIOs to have the power of the purse. Of course, with that responsibility given to CIOs comes a responsibility to actually listen to people — to not become “CI-NOs,” as too often happens.

Some additional reading:

* OMB 2008 memo on the role of the CIO

A bit before Karen Evans left government, Karen Evans crafted a memo on the role of the CIO. You can read the draft memo for yourself.

* DHS CIO and the ‘power of the purse’ from back in 2007:

Here is FCW’s March 2007 story about the DHS CIO announcement. I also made it FCW’s Buzz of the Week for the week of March 19, 2007… and the following week, in FCW’s editorial, under the headline Show ‘em the money, I gave DHS credit for giving the DHS CIO spending authority over IT spending.