The likely decline of the CIO

Bob Woods

For a long time, I have listened to the debate on why the ADP chief, the director of information systems, the head of information resource management and now the CIO should have a place at the table. The Brooks Act spoke to the ADP era, and the Clinger-Cohen Act modernized the Management 101 text to include the term “CIO.” Now the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act wants a bigger, better, politically appointed CIO. How agencies will improve results by replacing a career CIO with one destined to last 27 months is baffling. Put all the IT money under one person and problem solved. Wrong. Budget not executed, claims processing times increase, and service delivery measures worsen. Knowing whom to blame is a puzzle. Even as an IT veteran, I have my doubts.

I don’t think IT belongs in the chief financial officer’s shop or in the management shop or in the chief of staff’s shop. But I also don’t think CIOs need, deserve or work effectively in their own empires. IT leaders’ budget and function should be close enough to the mission that they and the mission leaders are rewarded or fired based on the impact IT has on service delivery and mission accomplishment.

It is best to remember that mission performance is a team sport. Clear lines of authority are important, with those authorities placed close to the operation.

Why is this debate so intense and long lasting? It’s mainly because the legislative and executive branches have very different views on how to run mission organizations. Capitol Hill is made up of people with a very different view of how to run government programs from the people who actually execute them. Congress is still composed largely of older male lawyers who never made anything. Yes, some of them are young, some of them are female, and some of them actually have made something that would count toward the gross domestic product. But most have not.

As a result, this group believes that operations run best if there is a lot of control and only one neck to choke. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in when it comes to IT. Some mistakes will be made, and it’s the program leaders who should be choked, not some designated noose-wearer known as the CIO.

It is best to remember that mission performance is a team sport. Clear lines of authority are important, with those authorities placed close to the operation. On a tour of Normandy a few years ago, I was told that the German army was hamstrung for days during the D-Day invasion because Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was on leave in Germany for his wife’s birthday and the local commanders did not have the authority to deploy the panzer divisions.

Our operational leaders in agencies need to be able to make decisions with agency missions in mind. I am not arguing that all operations and resources should be decentralized. But we should standardize and centralize only those activities and functions that are in the enterprise’s interest and put the rest nearer to the problem and the mission-delivery points.