The CIO Can Do That Too

A trend seems to be forming for how the Bush Administration plans to manage the federal chief information officer positions throughout government. And it's not too favorable for CIOs.

Last week U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns appointed Charles Christopherson Jr. as the department's chief information officer. Christopherson has been working as the department's chief financial officer. Johanns, in his announcement , informs us that Christopherson will retain his position as CFO.

One fact about being a CIO, either in the public or private sector: It's more than a 40 hour a week job. More like 50 or 60 hours a week, federal CIOs say. And the CFO position? It has similar demands. Just how much attention can a busy CFO give to information technology? Or conversely, how much time can a CIO give CFO duties? It can't be as much as what an executive appointed to that position can in full time.

That certainly wasn't the case in the past. Past USDA CIOs have held no other position at the department. Dave Combs was CIO from 2004 to 2007. Scott Charbo was the first USDA CIO appointed under the Bush Administration, serving from 2002 to 2004. Charbo left to become CIO at the Homeland Security Department, where two years later he took on a second top-level DHS executive position when he was named acting under secretary of management. Prior to Charbo, Ira Hobbs served as acting USDA CIO for a year and a half.

We can probably expect more of the same. With only 18 months or so left in President Bush's second term, finding top executives to fill CIO slots that they would have to give up within months is a difficult recruiting task at best.

But a bigger issue is at play here. The problem isn't whether basic IT work can get done. (USDA Deputy CIO Jerry Williams probably will oversee more.) The problem is the message it sends: We don't need a full-time CIO because IT doesn't matter. The vast majority of government executives have yet to embrace IT as a strategic tool in running agencies. Most businesses have yet to come to that conclusion as well, although the majority of large corporations -- the size of which are smaller than or close to the size of federal agencies -- view IT as having a primary role in setting business strategy. So, that may be a better comparison.

In any case, such a view doesn't bode well for federal IT in the months ahead. The chances that we'll see in the next year or so these CIOs promote innovative and bold IT initiatives to support agency missions is most likely slim to none. Expect these IT shops to have time to just keep the lights on.