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Defining the federal CIO role

It won't be easy to select a federal CIO, if and when the position is created. The person who fills the job will have to be familiar with technology, have keen business acumen, and navigate political territory. How would you write the job description?


While there is consistent political support for creating a federal CIO role, choosing the right person could be one of the toughest hurdles government leaders will face in the ongoing e-government effort. The chosen candidate would need business acumen, the power to scale bureaucratic fences, and a strong management approach. But even proven business stars could fail because few have experience working within the political environment.

“You need someone with private-sector experience in technology and public-sector experience in bureaucracy. If you can find that person, let me know,” said Rob Atkinson, vice president of the moderate Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

The problem, said John Thomas Flynn, former CIO of the states of California and Massachusetts, is that government is a “different animal” from today's corporate enterprise. The federal CIO would have to know how to deal with what Flynn calls the “herewhens” inherent in civil-service work environments. Herewhens are the people who tell new federal appointees, “I’m here when you come, and I’ll be here when you leave,” explained Flynn.

Most private-sector CIOs understand how technology can be used to increase productivity, but that doesn't translate to success in the political environment. “They are a babe in the woods when it comes to politics. You need somebody like the character in the old E.F. Hutton commercials—when he talked, people listened,” said Atkinson.

Is management or tech expertise more important?
One CEO believes management tenure, rather than political savvy or tech expertise, is key to the role. Avi Hoffer, CEO of Metastorm, a government consulting firm, insisted, “It’s not a technology job, it’s a managerial job.” He also said the position should follow a traditional hiring and firing process, rather than a federal appointment approach.

“Four years is not enough time,” explained Hoffer, referring to the length of a presidential term. “It takes two years to figure out what’s going on.”

It would also take a few years to get tech standards in place and enhance interoperability among federal agencies, he said.

“The governmental has to be influential,” said Hoffer, citing the need for standards. The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines how things are built so they can interoperate, but that hasn’t yet been extended to IT, he noted.

Choosing a federal CIO will be difficult, but integrating a new federal tech role into the federal system should be easier than ever, given the new homeland security agency. Observers also point to antiterrorism efforts as one example of how multiple agencies can band together behind a single goal.

“9/11 brought great clarity for the requirements of having our information systems up to speed,” said Hoffer. “It’s no longer okay to be disjointed and years behind the private sector.”

“The need [for IT leadership] is the most glaring there,” said Atkinson. “It’s not just the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI—you have to link customs, the immigration and naturalization service, and state systems.”

Atkinson noted that the CIO for the Office of Homeland Security has private-sector experience—Steve Cooper was formerly CIO of Corning Glass.

“If we’re going to do this kind of [federal CIO] initiative, the most likely place it will succeed is in homeland defense.”

What’s your take on the job requirements?
TechRepublic wants to know what your job description would be for the federal CIO role—what kind of educational background and employment history do you think the job requires? Do you think political astuteness is key, or even necessary, to making the job work well? Join this discussion or send us an e-mail and give us your feedback.

How vital is technology expertise given the vast resources and IT efforts already in place within government agencies? And maybe more importantly, what’s the first task a new federal CIO should tackle?

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