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CIO guidance viewed as too little, too late

The reaction to a Bush administration memo outlining the role of the federal chief information officer has been largely negative, with former CIOs and management specialists saying the definition falls short of giving the top technology executive the power he or she needs to manage IT in an agency.

Comment on this article in The Forum.In a draft memo that was widely circulated on Monday, the Office of Management and Budget listed the responsibilities of federal CIOs to make sure IT was managed more uniformly governmentwide. OMB is expected to release the final memo this week.

Former federal CIOs, all of whom asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly about a sensitive political topic, said the memo still leaves an agency's top technology executive without the authority needed to use IT to fully support government operations.

The memo advises that CIOs participate in the process of planning IT investments, but stops short of giving them control of the IT budget. "I don't really understand the purpose of this whole message," said one former federal CIO. "If you read it literally, it almost gives the suggestion that the CIO has unlimited power. But the thing that would be most helpful to CIOs, it doesn't address. Because if you know much about government, he who controls the funds controls the heart and mind of the whole organization. [The memo] talks about everything else but that."

But Laurie Orlov, an IT management consultant and principal for the consulting firm LMO Insight, said the memo gives the CIO ownership of all IT acquisitions within the agency. "It seems to me, the key point is 'except where authorized by law' the CIO owns all agency IT business," she said. "It's possible they are trying to reel in autonomous IT acquisitions, which happens in all enterprises."

One of the roles that received a positive review was a call for the CIO to report directly to the head of the agency -- a departure from the position the Bush administration has taken for years and one that most feel the CIO needs to be more effective.

"When you hear that the CIO reports to the [chief financial officer], you make a lot of assumptions," said Gene Leganza, vice president and research director for Forrester Research. "You make certain assumptions about [the organization viewing] IT as a utility, not involved in strategy or used as a strategic asset. [Those assumptions are] usually born out. Without taking it as a silver bullet, this certainly encourages organizations to operate in the kind of way to make better strategic decisions."

CIOs could not find much more to praise, however. For example, the memo should have been released shortly after President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which established the CIO position in government, said another former chief. "When the Clinger-Cohen Act first passed, each agency had to send their proposed structure over to OMB, and we all got notes back saying whatever anyone proposed was fine and would be reevaluated within a year," the official said. "Here it is, 12 years later and we finally get some clarifying language and guidance on this. It's almost like the ship has moved on, there are other issues and challenges now."

Besides, the memo most likely will be ignored by a Barack Obama or a John McCain administration. "At this stage, do they really feel this is going to be binding for any new administration that comes in?" the official asked. "It's seven years late."

Observers also said the memo has no authority behind it and agencies can choose to ignore it. "It's issued in the waning days of this administration, not quite on Jan. 19 [the day before the next president is inaugurated] but pretty close," the official said. "Any new administration is probably going to revisit this stuff."

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