What CIOs Need to Know Before Launching Major Reforms

Panchenko Vladimir/Shutterstock.com

The Partnership for Public Service pulled five strategies from former federal officials who have been there.

As the Trump administration and the American Technology Council push agencies for plans to wean them off outdated IT systems, federal technology leaders should prepare to manage people more than the technology, according to a nonprofit report.

The Partnership for Public Service’s Blueprint for Leading Lasting Technology Reforms in Government offers five strategies for IT reforms, distilled from interviews with former federal officials.

To start, federal chief information officers should have a clear vision of how their technology reforms will support agency missions and be able to share it with anyone. But a large part of a CIO’s role will focus on change management: transforming how the agency works, gaining the support of employees, encouraging the agency to take risks, and actively managing concerns that come up.

“In the federal world, as a CIO, you are a change agent,” Social Security Administration CIO Rajive Mathur told an audience at the report launch Wednesday. SSA recently unveiled its IT modernization plan, but implementing the plan is only part of his job. He still has to manage the day-to-day business needs of his agency.  

“Everyone wants to be a change agent, but if you don’t keep the lights on, if you don’t keep your core customers happy, you don’t get to be a change agent,” Justice Department Chief Information Officer Joseph Klimavicz agreed. He said he tries to split his time into thirds, divided between long-term projects, tactical issues and workforce needs.   

Another hurdle CIOs face is money—not the lack of it, but the lack of flexibility in the appropriations process.

“Maybe this is going to be radical coming from a CIO, but there’s plenty of money in the system,” Interior Department Chief Information Officer Sylvia Burns said. “We don’t spend that money well.”

Much of the federal government’s IT budget—more than $84 billion for fiscal 2017—goes to operating and maintaining legacy systems. For some agencies, those old systems eat up as much as 90 percent of their IT budget. At the Veterans Affairs Department, much of the $4.5 billion budget goes to decades-old systems.

“The only way the government can attack this problem is to be aggressive, to make the appropriate investments, to have a good plan and to be held accountable,” VA CIO Scott Blackburn said.