08/22/2011 05:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011

White House Gives CIOs New Roles, Without Authority To Cut IT Waste

A recent White House memo giving chief information officers at federal agencies greater responsibilities to reduce wasteful technology spending presents the latest example of the how too often in government, responsibility and authority don't always go hand in hand.

The memo, issued by Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew on Aug. 8, notified U.S. department and agency chiefs that the CIOs working for them have been tasked with greater roles and responsibilities by OMB, as well as greater accountability, in controlling technology spending.

But by not also holding agency heads accountable, OMB has given CIOs a mandate that will be hard to fully carry out, current and former government officials insist.

Mark Forman, who served as the first administrator in the Office of E-Government and IT at OMB during the George W. Bush Administration and is co-founder of Government Transaction Services is one those officials.

"Raising the power of the CIO is a good thing, but not sufficient to get results," he said in an article that appears on AOL Government.. "The administration has to hold all players accountable for results, and that includes secretaries and deputy secretaries," he said.

Federal CIO's have long had to battle for a permanent place at the decision table inside agencies. Despite efforts to give information technology leaders greater authority over the past 15 years--most notably with Congress enacting the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996--many agency CIOs continue to find themselves functioning as technology architects and risk managers, typically reporting the chief financial officer, without the power to change program decisions that often lead to wasteful IT spending practices.

From the White House's perspective, the new responsibilities are aimed at shifting the focus of CIOs "away from just policy making and infrastructure maintenance, to encompass true portfolio management for all IT," said OMB Director Lew.

Lew said the expansion of CIOs duties are in addition to their statutory responsibilities and are intended to bring greater discipline and focus in four areas in which "agency CIOs shall have a lead role":

  • Governance: CIOs must drive the investment review process for IT investments and have responsibility over the entire IT portfolio for an agency.

  • Commodity IT: CIOs must focus on eliminating duplication and rationalize their agency's IT investments in IT infrastructure (data centers, networks, desktop computers and mobile devices); enterprise IT systems (e-mail, security, and web infrastructure); and business systems (finance, human resources, and other administrative functions).
  • Program Management. CIOs shall improve the overall management of large federal IT projects by recruiting and reviewing top IT program management talent.
  • Information Security: CIOs, or senior agency officials reporting to the CIO, shall have the authority and primary responsibility to secure both the information collected and maintained by, or on behalf of the agency, and for the information systems that support the operations.
  • But these duties really aren't new. Nor is the degree of accountability assigned to CIOs.

    "Given the magnitude of problems--poor project performance, cyber security, and duplicative IT investment--the real work needs to be done by OMB," argues Forman.

    "Instead, they are pushing another wet noodle down the road and will no doubt make big claims that GAO will not be able to document any real savings," Forman said.

    Even if CIOs were granted greater practical authority within agencies, too many political and funding incentives remain in place to deter one of the biggest causes of wasteful IT spending: duplicative technology initiatives across government.

    The reality, in Forman's words, is that "redundant government programs are driving over investment and increased complexity of the federal IT architecture, which drives excessive cost." It also complicates cyber security.

    What's the answer?

    One place to begin is for the new federal CIO, Steven VanRoekel, and OMB to revisit some of the work that came out of Forman's office, and that of his successor, Karen Evans, that attempted to encourage shared technologies across government along common lines of business, such as financial and human resource management systems.

    VanRoekel already appears to be off to a good start building on IT reform recommendations of his predecessor, Vivek Kundra, to dramatically reduce the number of federal data centers and to move more of the government's computing work onto scalable, internet-based computing platforms and away from aging legacy systems.

    But until OMB succeeds in getting agencies to share common IT systems, the way large corporations have been doing for years, and Congress takes a more enlightened position about funding governmentwide systems, this latest White House memo is unlikely to root out the real savings potential in wasted federal IT spending.

    Subscribe to the Politics email.
    How will Trump’s administration impact you?