Can Your Agency's CIO Stop a Project That Isn’t Performing?

Lissandra Melo/

Federal chief information officers often lack the authority to do their jobs, GAO says.

The federal government expects to buy some $82 billion in information technology this year alone, and agency chief information officers are key to keeping those outlays on the up and up. The problem? Many of them don’t actually have the power to do so.

“Do CIOs have the authority to go in -- whether they have budget authority or not -- to stop a project that’s not performing well?” David Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s director of IT management issues, asked at a recent Senate hearing. “The answer to that is: Not consistently across the federal government.”

Powner's observation was borne out by a panel of CIOs.

Department of Homeland Security CIO Luke McCormack said he has a limited version of that authority.

“It’s never a single-handed decision,” he said. “I have the authority to throw a technical flag down on any given IT project and say that we need to pause and reassess what we’re doing.”

Donna Seymour, the Office of Personnel Management’s CIO, doesn’t have the power. “Given the director’s authority over operating the entire agency, it’s something that takes some engagement across leadership,” she said.

CIO spending authority is even rarer. Powner cited PortfolioStat, an initiative requiring agencies to conduct an annual review of their IT portfolios to identify and eliminate wasteful spending.

“PortfolioStat wasn’t focused on mission-critical acquisitions,” he said. “It was focused on commodity or business and administrative systems, and I think we had seven or eight agency CIOs tell us that they did not have authority over the business and administrative systems. That’s not a very good situation.”

Lawmakers agree agency CIOs need more authority -- the question is how much. Legislation passed by the House multiple times would limit each federal agency to one person with the CIO title and give that person full authority over IT spending. A Senate measure introduced last December would grant CIOs hiring authority for agency staff with IT responsibilities, but falls short of full budget authority.

(Image via Lissandra Melo /