Bush technology czar defends memo on CIO responsibilities

Administration official says IT is "just a tool," and that the memo's purpose was to clarify management structures before the presidential transition.

A high-ranking Office of Management and Budget official says there was no "hidden agenda" in an October memorandum that critics have said leaves federal chief information officers with too little power.

Comment on this article in The Forum.In an interview with Nextgov, Karen Evans, administrator for the Office of E-Government at OMB, said she believes government CIOs can get their job done regardless of whether they report directly to the head of their agencies.

"It surprises me that after 12 years, [CIOs] are still arguing about 'I need to report directly to the secretary,' " Evans said. "Look at other structures within other offices. … There isn't a General Counsel Act that says general counsels must report directly to the secretary. They have organized themselves in a way that there is the head general counsel and other components in the agency align themselves with the head counsel."

Critics within the federal CIO community have questioned the timing of the memo, arguing it did little to update existing guidance.Some have gone further, saying it decreased the powers of the CIO in violation of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act.

Evans said OMB only was seeking to help agencies prepare for the transition to the next administration by ensuring consistent information technology management across government, she said, noting that she plans to leave office on Jan. 20.

"There was no hidden agenda. It was really about properly preparing for the transition," she said. "It does not contradict Clinger-Cohen. Just because an org chart shows you have a direct line to the secretary doesn't make you a successful person. What does is what results you get with the authority you have. The memo focuses on who's below the CIO, not who's above."

A draft version of the memo included clauses stipulating that no other official in the agency had influence over the CIO and gave the CIO ultimate responsibility for all IT-related programs. The final memo backed off of that language and left the authority in the hands of the agency head.

"That's why you don't publicize the draft," Evans said.

Evans said the memo originally was written by the CIO Council. OMB altered some of the group's language to comply with existing guidance and to ensure IT was managed correctly, she said.

Critics have said having CIOs who do not participate in high-level strategic discussions reduces IT to a utility. Evans did not share that concern.

"Actually IT is just a tool," she said."It's the information that's strategic. IT is an enabler. It enables you to have information to make better decisions or have better services."

Evans said she was glad OMB released the memo, despite the fallout.

"I was surprised at the reaction to the memo," she said. "Everyone's thinking there's more to it than we intended. I thought it must be time to do it or we wouldn't have gotten as much reaction. It's really a re-statement of a lot of policies we already had, but bringing it together in a concise, clear way."