Analysis: The Federalist IT Papers

What advice would James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have for federal CIOs?

Few chief information officers would look to the founding fathers for information technology leadership advice. In fact, many would be skeptical of insights from men who did their best work with a quill pen and communicated only by letters or in-person meetings. This is partly because IT leaders often underestimate the importance of effective governance and overestimate the importance of technology in business technology decisions. 

Technology selection is rarely the primary cause of derailment for IT strategies, programs or leaders, CEB’s research and experience working with hundreds of IT executives has confirmed.  Instead, effective IT governance is the defining characteristic of organizations that best use technology to achieve their mission. High performing enterprises are deliberate and purposeful about allocating their scarce human and financial resources among a constantly shifting and seemingly limitless set of demands.

Potential changes in federal IT authority and accountability are coming at a time of extreme cost management pressures. Executive mandates require reductions in IT budgets, and Congress is increasingly suspicious of the effectiveness of IT spending. Should the Senate pass the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, known as FITARA, in the current form as approved by the House, agencies will be required to have only one CIO and accountability for investment and portfolio oversight will shift accordingly. These changes are likely to aggravate long-standing tensions between headquarters and component-level decision-making models.

As significant changes to IT governance take shape, federal IT executives should look to history for guidance in making decisions on effective governance. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton supported the sharing of power between a federal governing body and its states while arguing that the benefits of cohesive central power outweigh the risks of limits to local autonomy. As IT leaders define the boundaries of appropriate roles for the Office of Management and Budget, headquarters CIOs and component CIOs in determining IT policy, they would be well served to revisit some of the foundational governance roles that Madison and Hamilton chronicled.

Three common themes from The Federalist Papers outlined below describe key roles of a central governing authority and provide some parallel examples for government IT leaders today.

  • Original Federal Role #1 – Consolidate Power to Negotiate External Agreements and Treaties
  • Founders’ Action: Creation of the Department of Foreign Affairs to negotiate external treaties
  • Federal IT Equivalent Role: Consolidate purchasing power to improve negotiating leverage for external contracts
  • Current Mandates: FITARA and the Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative
  • Goals: To ensure that Agency-level CIOs reduce duplication and waste by creating enterprisewide contracts and leveraging their collective purchasing power
  • Original Federal Role #2 – Establish a Common Currency and Infrastructure to Facilitate Internal Trade
  • Founders’ Action: Creation of the Department of Treasury and a common currency to facilitate trade of goods across state lines
  • Federal IT Equivalent Role: Establish common data standards to facilitate exchange of information across agency silos
  • Current Mandates: Open Data and Digital Governance directives from OMB
  • Goals: To establish common data standards and application programming intervaces, or APIs, to ensure that information can travel across different agencies to improve the quality of decision-making
  • Original Federal Role #3 – Create a Shared Defense Department to Protect our National Perimeter from External Threats
  • Founders’ Action: Creation of the Department of War in 1789 to provide for “the common defence [sic] of the members—the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks.”
  • Federal IT Equivalent Role: Strengthen the defense of our information assets from cybersecurity threats
  • Current Mandates: Cross-Agency Priority on Cybersecurity, Information Technology Workforce Assessment for Cybersecurity
  • Goals: To ensure that Agency headquarters CIOs have the power and authority to consistently define information security protocols across the enterprise to provide better defense around advanced persistent threats

Madison’s and Hamilton’s persuasive insights are relevant and valuable to today’s IT leaders as they navigate through similar internal debates. More than 200 years ago, they crafted a framework that accommodated diverse groups and has endured the strains of wars, civil rights and profound economic and demographic shifts. Though on a different scale, tensions over the central control of IT funds, data standards and protection against cyber threats reflect those historical debates. Just as Madison and Hamilton worked carefully to attain balance between central and local power for citizens, IT leaders must strive to find the best allocation of responsibilities and the most effective IT governance for agencies.

Kris van Riper is a managing director and Lon Zanetta is a senior executive advisor in CEB’s Government practice, where they support chief information officers and their leadership teams.