Watchdog: Agency CIOs Still Don’t Have Mandated Authorities

Panchenko Vladimir/

A Government Accountability Office report shows few agencies have policies giving chief information officers the authorities they need to be successful.

The onus to improve the use and management of technology in the federal government has been put squarely on the shoulders of agency chief information officers. However, across government, CIOs still don’t have the requisite authorities to lead IT transformation, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

Ask any federal IT expert—in the private sector, administration or Congress—what actions need to be taken to improve adoption and management of technology in government and empowering CIOs will top the list.

Legislators have been hitting this issue since 1996, with the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act. Further, the need to give more authority to CIOs was a central point of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act passed in 2014, which the Trump administration reinforced by executive order earlier this year.

While that drumbeat has been constant, the GAO report starkly showcases this issue with hard numbers.

While GAO gets granular with the metrics, overall, less than half of agencies have policies that address CIO leadership and authority. That was the best showing out of six functional areas, which include leadership, budgeting, information security, investment management, strategic planning and workforce.

GAO put some of the blame on the Office of Management and Budget for not issuing stronger guidance.

“First, the guidance does not comprehensively address all CIO responsibilities, such as those relating to assessing the extent to which personnel meet IT management knowledge and skill requirements and ensuring that personnel are held accountable for complying with the information security program,” the report states. “Second, OMB guidance does not ensure that CIOs have a significant role in (1) IT planning, programming and budgeting decisions and (2) execution decisions and the management, governance and oversight processes related to IT.”

Analysts noted agency policies generally failed to address issues not specifically cited in OMB guidance.

Where OMB did issue guidance—such as on managing financial resources, workforce availability and recruitment and retention processes—“the guidance does not fully address those challenges,” GAO said.

Overall, CIOs seem to lean toward following the law, rather than agency statutes.

“Officials from most agencies stated that their CIOs are implementing the responsibilities even when not required in policy,” GAO analysts wrote. “Nevertheless, the 24 selected CIOs acknowledged in their responses to GAO’s survey that they were not always very effective in implementing the six information technology management areas.”

GAO made three recommendations to OMB—issue additional guidance, particularly around IT workforce; update guidance on how agencies should use CIOs in budgeting and management of IT resources; and define CIO reporting authorities. GAO made one recommendation to all CFO Act agencies to better manage the six functional areas. GAO also assessed each agency on several factors within each area.

Leadership and Accountability

The Commerce, Education, Energy, Interior and Transportation departments had especially strong showings in this category, with full compliance on each of the five submetrics: reporting, hiring, budget management and performance ratings.

The Defense Department, Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, National Science Foundation, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Personnel Management, Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration and U.S. Agency for International Development were also strong, showing full compliance in the areas that applied to their unique situations.

The Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development and Treasury departments fared the worst, each failing to comply with at least three leadership metrics.

Strategic Planning

The strategic planning category was more of a mixed bag, with 50 percent of agencies using performance metrics to analyze how IT investments are aiding agency missions and almost two-thirds establishing concrete goals for improving agency operations using IT.

However, only four agencies—the Justice and Labor departments, HUD and NRC—prepared annual reports on progress toward achieving those goals and only two—Defense and SBA—were using data to make future investment decisions.

None of the agencies had set up processes for benchmarking progress against the private sector, though Justice does require the CIO to measure the agency against other public-sector organizations.

IT Workforce

The workforce category—addressing one of the most pressing issues in government IT—was even more dismal.

Only four agencies—Agriculture, Labor, Transportation and GSA—annually assess the knowledge and skills they need from the workforce and only one—Labor—is developing annual strategies for hiring and training and measuring the effectiveness of those strategies.

Some agencies met these requirements in part but didn’t require the CIO to review strategies and status on an annual basis.


Here the picture is a bit rosier, with every agency either fully or partially in compliance with the main metric: ensuring CIOs have “a significant role in IT planning, programming and budgeting decisions.” However, only DHS, Justice and NRC were in full compliance.

Similarly, all but three agencies were in full compliance with the mandate to implement a selection process for IT investments. Only Treasury failed to comply in some way with this requirement; Energy and Justice were in partial compliance.

The only metric to see large-scale failure was review and approval of reprogramming—shifting funding from one account or program to another. Ten agencies—Energy, HHS, HUD, Labor, State, Treasury, EPA, NSF, SBA and USAID—were not in compliance.

Investment Management.

This category, which includes PortfolioStat reviews, tracking high-risk projects and other project execution management, turned out to be a  mixed-bag for agencies. None were fully meeting the requirement to give CIOs a significant role in decisions on how IT investments are executed, though all agencies were partially in compliance. GAO analysts offered specific guidance to each agency.

The remaining metrics address specific IT areas, such as using incremental development and managing data centers. Agency compliance varied, though the government had a strong showing in areas like developing processes for evaluating investments, with all but three agencies in full compliance.

Information Security

The 24 CFO Act agencies were surprisingly strong in an area where government is often considered behind: information security. All 24 fully complied with the mandate to ensure security personnel are properly trained and all but one department had a full agencywide information security program; NASA was only partially in compliance.

However, agencies fell down when it came to ensuring that everyone—officials and rank-and-file employees—are abiding by security procedures. Only six agencies—Defense, Interior, Justice, VA, EPA and SSA—had policies to ensure senior officials carry out their responsibilities and only three—Defense, Justice and VA—extended those policies to include all employees.