Commentary: Unlock technology’s potential by giving CIOs line-of-sight authority

March 31, 2013

Technology has been the driver of tremendous growth and productivity in the private sector over the past 25 years. Government, however, hasn’t seen similar gains, despite adopting similar technologies. Why?

Information technology represents about $80 billion in federal expenditures annually, but these dollars can be used more effectively. When Congress created the position of chief information officer for cabinet agencies in 1996 it was intended that CIOs would have the authority to implement the acquisition and management of information technology, including an integrated IT architecture across an entire agency. This, however, wasn’t implemented consistently across all cabinet agencies.

Across the federal government, CIOs rarely report directly to the cabinet secretaries; they usually report to the chief financial or the chief management officers. CIOs often do not control their agency IT budgets. Budget items are usually parceled out across different appropriations; and the CIO often does not have visibility or control of IT budgets managed at the sub-agency or bureau level. Also, many CIOs have no direct organizational ties to the IT bureau leaders within their agencies and have a minimal role in their selection or evaluation.

We believe that consolidated control of the IT budget under the CIO is the key to unlocking technology-related efficiency gains for the federal government. This assertion is neither new nor unproven. The second largest federal agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, consolidated all of its IT in 2009. Since then, it has substantially improved results from IT expenditure, such as implementing the systems for the new GI bill and for tele-health, while holding its IT budget flat.

Consolidation is not easy. It requires that IT is recognized as an enterprise asset managed by the agency CIO. It requires that IT includes mission support and administrative technologies, and that IT budgets include infrastructure, development, operations and maintenance, as well as workforce elements. It requires that the CIO has the authority to start, stop, cancel and transfer IT budget resources with the concurrence of the secretary as needed to effectively implement the overall IT program. And it requires that the CIO establishes an appropriate governance process that includes key stakeholders, including program offices and bureau heads.

We believe that the time is right to unlock technology’s potential for the federal government. IT can become the engine for cost effective mission enablement and delivery of government services. We understand that giving CIOs more budget authority represents a significant change for many federal agencies. While it is no guarantee that all IT projects are successful, it will help ensure that the government is spending its IT dollars on the right projects. “Empowered” agency CIOs can initiate the much needed transformation leading to a more efficient federal government.

Roger Baker was the chief information officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs from May 2009 until March 2013. Van Hitch was the chief information officer of the Justice Department from April 2002 until August 2011. He is currently a senior adviser to Deloitte Consulting.

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