Just as the technology revolution of the 1990s reshaped how Corporate America operates, it has forever changed how the federal government works. Like the private sector, Uncle Sam is learning to put a premium on coordinating how it buys and uses technology -- a mammoth task now headed in both worlds by an entirely new type of leader, the chief information officer, or CIO for short.
During the first Clinton administration, Congress and the president recognized that the government's technology buying patterns would lead to a hodgepodge of systems that wouldn't work together unless federal agencies developed long-term information technology strategies and created a mechanism to share best IT practices. As a result, the CIO position was mandated for the first time in 1996 at all of the executive branch agencies.
Transcript: Mark Forman, President Bush's E-Gov czar, was online to discuss administration technology priorities and the role of federal CIOs.
Federal CIOs typically don't spend their days plugging in computers or installing network firewalls. Nor are they necessarily buying software packages or hiring private contractors to deliver IT work, something that usually falls to the procurement and contracting officers.
Instead, the CIO's job is to provide strategic leadership, serving as a master planner and project manager to orchestrate an agency's overall IT plan. According to both CIOs and industry experts, one of the major challenges facing the current roster of federal CIOs is a political one -- justifying to the White House and Congress that certain IT projects are absolutely necessary.
"In my view, the CIO's job has not an awful lot to do with technology. It has to do with management and organization and figuring out how to put an organization together and getting people to work together more than anything else," said Roger W. Baker, who served as CIO of the Department of Commerce from 1998 to 2001 and now works for IT services firm CACI, based in Arlington, Va.
Anne Reed, who served as the first CIO for the Department of Agriculture from 1997 to 2000, said the CIO job has always been complex, but agreed the obstacles facing CIOs often have nothing to do with technology.
"The challenges are less technical [such as] finding their way through the decision making process. One of the biggest challenges they have now is focused on business cases," said Reed, who now serves as president of Oakton-based consulting firm Acquisition Solutions Inc.
As part of President Bush's management agenda, and pushed heavily by Mark Forman -- associate director of the OMB for e-government and information technology -- CIOs and other senior level agency officials have been pressed to use corporate-style management rules coupled with performance-based measures.
"Just as the role of the CIO in Corporate America has taken on a whole new form in the last 10 or 12 years or so, I think similarly it is beginning to happen in the federal government," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.
Making this corporate leap is often difficult for federal CIOs, many of whom have climbed the ranks of the government and are used to a traditional way of doing things, said Raymond Bjorklund, vice president of market intelligence and chief knowledge officer of McLean-based government consulting firm FSI/Federal Sources Inc.