Federal CIOs need more authority to better manage IT

Senate panel hears pleas for stronger central authorities for department and agency CIOs

Amid widespread agreement that the federal government has a long way to go toward improving efficiencies in its IT operations, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel argued before a Senate committee on Tuesday that giving department and agency CIOs stronger, central authority could help eliminate or consolidate duplicative technology projects.

Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, VanRoekel spoke of a "tremendous opportunity to improve our management of federal IT."

That opportunity rests on a drive toward centralization that would empower an agency CIO with the authority to coordinate IT projects across the various bureaus of the organization, which today too often keep their IT operations cordoned off under the direction of their own CIO.

"My vision of CIO authorities is the central CIO should really be the hub for all the commodity computing. There should be one help desk. There should be one email system, one way to buy a computer, one way to get mobile. And that CIO should also then provide services to the CIOs sitting in the periphery," VanRoekel says.

"I want the CIO of the Federal Aviation Administration to wake up every day thinking about flight safety, and I want them to think about flight safety when they go to bed at night. I don't want them to wake up and think, 'Is the email up and running? Are BlackBerries working?'" he adds. "That should be done elsewhere and we should focus the professionals on the mission at hand and get the centralization happening to root out duplication and drive everything in a do-once, use-often methodology."

The Need for Stronger CIO Authority

That view won the endorsement of perhaps the most vocal critic of wasteful government spending on Capitol Hill, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, the ranking member of the governmental affairs committee. Coburn estimates that of the roughly $80 billion in annual federal government IT expenditures, at least one-third is spent on unnecessary, duplicative or otherwise ineffective projects. He argues that much of that waste can be attributed to a severe management deficit that could be rectified by a stronger role for department and agency CIOs.

"If you're not going to give CIOs the authority to do what they need to do, why do you need CIOs?" Coburn says.

David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, offers a more conservative estimate of the potential savings from eliminating duplicative and wasteful IT spending, though he still sees billions of dollars that could be cut from federal tech budgets through stronger CIO authorities and greater transparency and accountability.

"I think the CIO authority thing is a big deal and that needs to be addressed," he says.

Witnesses at Tuesday's hearing testified that federal agencies, much like businesses in the private sector, should take an enterprise-wide approach to their IT operations, one that considers the totality of their portfolio when making decisions about any new initiative, ranging from replacing duplicative email systems with a single cloud-based application or consolidating data centers.

Powner credits departments and agencies with having made significant strides toward modernizing their IT operations and bringing transparency to their operations through reporting on the status of projects on the federal IT dashboard, though he is careful not to overstate that progress. For instance, on the IT dashboard, where CIOs submit evaluations of their technology projects, the Defense Department -- by far the largest government consumer of IT -- does not identify a single IT investment in red to denote that the project is in danger of failing, which Powner (and Coburn) says is patently inaccurate.

"You can't fix a problem on your acquisition if you don't acknowledge that you have a problem," Powner says.

Data Center Consolidation Lacking in Absence of Central CIO Authority

Then on data center consolidation, Powner says he would like to see agencies move toward a point where they are more closely aligned with industry, boasting server-utilization rates on the order of 60 percent to 70 percent. At present, he estimates that agencies are typically running utilization rates in the range of 5 percent to 15 percent.

The government-wide push to consolidate data centers, scale back infrastructure and improve efficiencies is slowed by an incomplete picture of the government's IT footprint, which in part traces back to the absence of central CIO authority. At the Department of Commerce, for instance, the "overwhelming majority" of data centers are managed at the bureau level, Commerce CIO Simon Szykman testified. Powner adds that reporting has also been incomplete, describing the recent revelation of some 1,000 previously unaccounted-for data centers, most small in scale and many belonging to various entities within the departments of Agriculture and Defense.

Even at the low end, on commodity systems such as email, the technology shops at the various bureaus within an agency commonly operate as semi-autonomous fiefdoms, Powner says, suggesting that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) take a stronger stance on advancing CIO authority.

"We are currently learning that many agency CIOs do not have authority over commodity IT, which is not a very high bar," Powner says. "Each agency needs more leadership, and also there needs to be more leadership out of OMB if we are truly to do this right over time."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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