How FITARA helps federal CIOs straddle IT and finance roles

Being an effective CIO means mastering multiple disciplines. Four CIOs new to their posts explain the demands of the role, and how new rules strengthen the CIO's hand in federal organizations.

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Being a federal CIO is about more than IT, said a group of IT chiefs who shared their experiences in the position during an Oct. 15 panel discussion.

"It's not about having a lot of history in IT," said Agriculture Department CIO Jonathan Alboum, at an Association for Federal Information Resources Management event. "You have to translate between the IT world and business."

One key to being effective is knowing how to tell top agency managers what the IT team's work means to overall business objectives, he added.

The four CIOs on the AFFIRM panel said that thanks to the rules associated with the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, IT managers are strengthening their grasp of business objectives.

Being able to talk IT specifics and having the experience to back it up are also important, said Rafael Diaz, CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "IT is a tough crowd. If you can't speak the IT language, you lose credibility."

However, he agreed that being able to carry on a bottom-line business conversation with the chief financial officer and chief operating officer was equally important. "I've got my feet in both worlds," he said.

Navy Department CIO Robert Foster and Immigration and Customs Enforcement CIO Michael Brown added that FITARA rules will help on both counts.

"FITARA defines roles," Brown said. The new rules, which give agency CIOs more oversight authority for technology acquisition and requires agencies to develop detailed acquisition plans, "brings people to the table" who otherwise might not have been there, he added. "It moves IT into the value proposition" of the agency, beyond its traditional background support role.

The CIOs said their operations straddle build-it-yourself and cloud-based services, but they also have to support critical legacy systems.

"I don't want to own hardware," Diaz said. "I don't have the budget [to support fleets of servers and data centers]. I don't have to when I go to the cloud, but legacy systems aren't going away overnight."

Brown said ICE is giving its component agencies some wiggle room in how they acquire software and less hardware-intensive IT, and is becoming more of a close consultant. For instance, he said, the agency's local employees can decide what kind of smartphones they buy, but not before asking IT managers for their opinion.

The panelists agreed that to be most effective, the CIO's office must be a valuable resource for the rest of the agency. And they said the upcoming presidential election should not have an impact on IT operations, even though some politically appointed CIOs will be replaced.

Strong IT governance plans, which FITARA might help establish, transcend changes of administration, said Alboum, who added that he is a career federal employee. He said he is building a strong IT foundation that is backed by equally strong processes to sustain it for the long term.

"I'm a political appointee," Diaz said. "That's what I'm doing, too." He added that a federal CIO's overall concerns aren't necessarily for each project, but for the people and processes it takes to move the IT mission forward.