VanRoekel’s Successor: Why the Next Federal CIO Could be a Familiar Face

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The search to fill the latest vacancy left by former Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel probably won’t end in Silicon Valley, experts say.

When the Obama administration sought to stand up a new White House office for fixing  failing federal IT projects, it turned to Silicon Valley for a leader -- former Google engineer Mikey Dickerson.

When Todd Park announced late last month his plan to leave his post as chief technology officer, the administration again looked south of San Francisco for his replacement. Former Google executive Megan Smith was appointed less than a week after Park’s planned exit went public.

But the search to fill the latest vacancy left by former Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel will likely focus on candidates a little closer to Washington.

The safest and most logical choice for the administration is to pick a known federal IT insider for the open leadership post, experts and federal IT watchers agree.

Outsider Faces Steep Learning Curve

“There's a sharp learning curve if you're coming from Silicon Valley into the federal government, because the nuances, the rules, procurement -- how all those processes work -- they're very challenging. They're different than in corporate America,” said Karen Evans, who served as administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology and de facto federal CIO for six years during the George W. Bush administration.

VanRoekel, who announced Sept. 19 he was leaving the CIO post to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development’s tech response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, largely focused his efforts on improving and refining those arcane processes.

A key part of his legacy is the championing of PortfolioStat, the annual process for tracking and prioritizing IT investments at agencies. More recently, VanRoekel shepherded development of the administration’s digital government strategy, including how-to guides for better technology procurement and agile IT development.

'It Can't Be Someone Who's Risky'...

An exciting outsider, even one with a wealth of tech experience, who’s not well-versed in the mores of the federal government “would be a mistake,” said Clay Johnson, a former presidential innovation fellow and well-known tech-procurement reformer.

“For the CTO role -- largely an outward facing role -- I think Megan Smith was a great choice,” he told Nextgov in an email. “But the CIO role needs to be someone who understands these problems and can hit the ground running.”

Another reason a known quantity is more likely than a flashy prestige pick? The clock is running out.

With HealthCare.gov still looming large in popular memory, officials are looking to cement the administration’s tech legacy -- all while the adminstration is “sunsetting,” said Mark Forman, who served as the first administrator of the e-gov office in the Bush administration and is now vice president for IT services and cloud initiatives at TASC.

“The No. 1 challenge the new federal CIO will face is that he or she will start their job late in the second term of a two-term administration,” Forman told Nextgov in an email. “Hopefully, the next CIO will be familiar with the role of U.S. government in the IT marketplace and the role of IT in the U.S. government. It’s not like running a small startup, and without large enterprise expertise it could be very difficult to accomplish anything at this stage of the administration.”

The CIO position, it should be noted, is presidentially appointed but doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

Still, a likely outcome in play-it-safe Washington would be the elevation of VanRoekel’s respected deputy Lisa Schlosser to the permanent position. Or, in true don’t-rock-the-boat style, Barack Obama and his advisers may let the position remain officially vacant even as Schlosser continues to fill in for the remainder of Obama’s term.  

"I think you want someone who is efficient and can still help create a good legacy but not stumble and fail at the end of the administration,” said a current high-ranking IT official who requested anonymity. “It can't be someone who is risky.”

Name-Game Rumor Mill Already Swirling

Already, speculation about a full-time replacement is swirling. Here are the names Nextgov has heard pop up most frequently as well as a few key outside-the-box suggestions.

David Bray, CIO of the Federal Communications Commission, is a high-profile fixture at government conferences and other speaking events. He also has an extensive background in the defense and intelligence worlds and could act as a broker between the Pentagon and the traditionally civilian-centric parameters of the CIO job.

Richard Spires, the well-regarded former CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, who resigned in May 2013 under still-murky circumstances. Sources at the time cited disagreements among Spires, who’s now CEO of Resilient Network Systems, and other senior DHS officials over the CIO’s budget authority.

“Spires would be great, if he were willing to come back,” said a current CIO at a mid-size federal agency. “Best qualified in my opinion.”

Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, seems an unconventional choice but he has his backers.

Clay Johnson, who first publicly pushed for Powner’s appointment to the position this summer -- before it was even vacant -- told Nextgov the auditor “demonstrated both a phenomenal understanding of what went wrong with HealthCare.gov, but brought in the right people and assessed the right path forward for how to fix it.”

Other names Nextgov has heard buzz about include Alissa Johnson, deputy CIO in the White House’s Office of Administration, and even consummate outsider Mikey Dickerson, the aforementioned ex-Googler who heads the U.S. Digital Service.

It’s still anyone’s guess, though.

"You hear all the usual suspects,” the former high-ranking federal IT official said of the current name-game speculation. “Usually, the first set of names that you hear are not the names that are being considered."

Camille Tuutti contributed reporting. 

(Image via razihusin/Shutterstock.com)

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