Does the Federal CIO Shop Need Bold Vision or Implementation?

VanRoekel didn’t just stick with his predecessor’s plan, he added his own initiatives.

It’s an old trope in government that too much change all at once can start to yield diminishing returns.

That’s why government executives who make major changes are often succeeded by managers who, either by temperament or necessity, focus on implementing their predecessor’s big initiatives, making sure all the new processes are running smoothly and the troops are on board, says Alan Balutis, a former chief information officer at the Commerce Department and now a director at Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group.

That’s the sort of transition that seemed to be taking place when Vivek Kundra, the nation’s first chief information officer, was succeeded by Steven VanRoekel, it’s second, Balutis said during a Nextgov interview last week.

VanRoekel’s first year in office has told a different story, though, with a pace of new initiatives that matches or exceeds his predecessor’s. With that much transformation in such a short period, Balutis worries, many of the changes implemented in the past four years won’t have time to work their way into the fabric of federal operations, especially if Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins the presidency in November and appoints a third federal CIO.

“Before we can start checking off the boxes on data center consolidation and cloud computing and a host of other things there really is so much more work to be done,” Balutis said, “someone who’s going to take that as their charter and mandate and follow through so these things in fact become institutionalized.”

Balutis’ comments got me thinking about how much VanRoekel’s character as the government’s IT leader has developed since he first took office.

In a joint meeting with reporters when his appointment was announced, Kundra, VanRoekel and then-Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients all stressed continuity.

On the changer-implementer scale, Kundra clearly had been far on the side of transformation. He didn’t have just one big change he wanted to make to how government information technology works, he had 25 of them, running the gamut from how the government buys its technology to how it stores it to who is responsible. VanRoekel, the trio said, would focus on seeing those goals to the finish line.

That characterization has been borne out in some important ways. There’s little to no sunlight between where the two CIOs stand on major goals such as consolidating federal data centers and moving as much of the government’s Web storage as possible to more nimble cloud computing. If anything, VanRoekel has doubled down on those initiatives, increasing the baseline for federal data centers to be consolidated and overseeing major new cloud transitions.

VanRoekel also has launched new initiatives of his own, though, most notably a governmentwide digital strategy that matches many of Kundra’s initiatives in the scope of its ambitions.

Given the number of transformative initiatives agency IT shops are working on now, is it reasonable to worry some of those goals might slip through the cracks? Let me know what you think in the comments or at