What CIO Vacancies Mean For Modernizing Government

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A Congressman leading the tech upgrade movement says Congress should just treat acting CIOs like permanent ones.

President Donald Trump’s new tech-themed White House team has made upgrading government technology a key talking point, but many federal agencies’ top technology positions remain unfilled and it’s unclear how quickly interim chief information officers can act.

“Acting [tech leadership] is going to be reluctant to [make] a major shift … without politically appointed folks in place,” Kevin Cummins, vice president of technology at the Professional Services Council, a trade group representing contractors, said in a call with reporters last week. “That’s a natural tendency in any government transition period.”

Today, almost half of Trump’s cabinet agencies lack permanent CIOs, according to the Partnership for Public Service, an advocacy group for civil servants. The White House has yet to fill critical technology leadership on its own staff—the positions of federal CIO and chief information security officer are still filled by acting officials.

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Still, one lawmaker who has championed modernization efforts thinks he has a solution: treat interim leaders as though they’re permanent.

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas., introduced the Modernizing Government Technology Act, which creates working capital funds in federal agencies that those organizations can use to fund modernization projects. It also creates a governmentwide fund, overseen by the General Services Administration, that agencies would be able to apply to for additional money.

The lack of permanent tech leadership means that not all federal agencies will be equipped to fully take advantage of the MGT Act, Hurd said at a recent PSC event in Washington.

But the leadership void isn’t enough to stop Congress from pushing the legislation, and, if it becomes law, to stop legislators from grilling agencies on their modernization efforts, Hurd said.

“Yes, there’s probably some acting CIOs who say, ‘We’re not going to do anything, because somebody new’s going to come in, and have a different perspective,” Hurd said at an event last week hosted by the Centers for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re going to still have to [appear] in front of a committee” to answer questions like, ‘Why are you not following up on plans that were given to you from previous folks?’ and ‘Why are you not implementing some of the good policy [the Homeland Security Department] is putting out?’”

Permanent tech leadership would help, but “we have to live in reality,” he said.

How Widespread is the Problem?

Thirteen of the federal government’s 27 largest agencies lack permanent chief information officers, according to PSC data.

As of October, agencies with acting CIOs include the Commerce, Defense and Interior departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the Navy. (See Nextgov’s updated list here.)

Since Trump has taken office, a couple of CIOs who took those spots under Obama have resigned or shuffled around within the organization, such as the reassignments of the Agriculture Department’s Jonathan Alboum, who held that position since 2015, and Treasury Department’s Sonny Bhagowalia, who moved out to a detail at the Bureau of Fiscal Service, Federal News Radio reported.

And at least one Trump appointee left his spot after three months; Richard Starapoli, who had DHS’ top tech post, stepped down in September.

Other CIOs are leaving the federal government or retiring. Dave DeVries, the Office of Personnel Management’s former CIO stepped down in September to be Michigan's state CIO, and the agency on Monday named a replacement, former Maryland CIO David Garcia. The Veterans Affairs Department’s acting CIO Rob Thomas also announced his retirement last month.

Despite uncertainty about technology leadership, current CIOs and contractors are still most concerned about looming cybersecurity vulnerabilities in legacy technology. In a recent survey polling 300 staff members at 29 federal agencies, about 72 percent of federal CIOs said most applications in their agencies were legacy systems.

Taking Advantage of MGT Without a Federal CIO

The MGT Act passed the Senate last month as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018. It won’t become law unless it’s part of the House-Senate conference version of the NDAA, which Congress could take up sometime in December.

Lawmakers worked with the Office of American Innovation, run by Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, on the MGT Act, according to Hurd.

It’s not the first attempt to incentivize modernization; under Obama, Tony Scott, then federal CIO, proposed a $3.1 billion governmentwide IT modernization fund, which made its way into earlier versions of MGT.

During that process, Hurd talked to Scott almost weekly, he said at a recent CSIS event, and “not having some of the permanent CIOs in positions across government has been difficult.”

“I almost feel like the work I’m doing with the Office of American Innovation, that was kind of the working relationship I had with Tony Scott,” he said. “Having someone in that role permanently would go a long way, but I also recognize the difficulties of finding the right skill set.”

At the agency level, “whether you’re interim or not, we can’t miss out on the momentum,” Hurd told Nextgov.

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