The CIO and government IT

Two longtime federal IT leaders discuss the pros and cons of elevating agency CIOs in the executive branch power structure.

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Editor's Note: Alan Balutis and Don Upson are long-time friends who sit on different sides of the political fence. Both have served in government and now work in the private sector -- Balutis as a distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems and Upson as the founder and president of the Government-Business Executive Forum. Between them they have won 13 Federal 100 awards.

This is the second in a series of Point-Counterpoint articles they will be doing for FCW that will focus on current management challenges.


With every new administration comes the cry from some quarters for a Cabinet-level CIO. It makes sense at first blush; after all, the $80 billion-plus in annual federal IT spending is more than the budgets of all but a few departments. Washington often equates “budget” with “power,” so in this equation, $80 billion-plus represents a heavy dose of the latter.

On the other hand, the focus on IT spending as a rationale for a Cabinet-level CIO makes little sense, at least for the foreseeable future.


Actually, Don, I’d put total federal IT spending at close to $100 billion, per President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal. That number might give the argument even more “power.” Your old friend Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) recently asked a Data Act Summit audience whether a Cabinet-level CIO is the future of government IT. But let’s argue about that another time.


Agreed. Let’s put aside the question of whether a federal CIO should sit at the Cabinet table. The larger and more important question to be answered is what is and should be the role of the CIO in government. Substantive reform is long overdue in that area.

Rather than IT spending or IT acquisition, substantial CIO reform legislation should focus on the CIO’s mission, which is “information” mapped and prioritized to the department’s or agency’s mission — in other words, an information architecture.

Billions have been spent on technical enterprise architectures without ever having mapped the important information flows that direct every government operation, partly because the CIO is often neither empowered nor, in some instances, qualified to make those decisions.

An information architecture argues for different capabilities in a CIO, and it certainly reorders them. Technical knowledge, while important, becomes subordinate to management knowledge and experience. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft viewed his CIO as vital to his mission of moving information and enabling greater collaboration across the Justice Department.

He was concerned about better information flows among the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and he viewed the processes that would enable those flows as the responsibility of his CIO, Van Hitch. He was empowered by a Cabinet-level attorney general who saw the CIO’s office as it should be seen.

When a CIO’s primary responsibility is to map and move information to the right people at the right time and to prioritize those information flows within available resources, a stronger case can be made for elevating the CIO position in government. Absent that, the function will fail to meet its promise.

Indeed, the office will become fractured, as can be seen with the proliferation of CTOs and chief data officers across government. Those offices carry no statutory accountability or structure, and they should be incorporated into an information management framework, with a CIO charged with execution.


Hasn’t that already happened, Don? Ironically, coincident with the enactment of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act in 2014, which is designed to strengthen and clarify the authority of the CIO, has come a new proliferation of chiefs, especially in the IT arena. To a certain extent, I find those new roles puzzling. Let’s review them:

  • Chief data officer. We know government agencies generate lots of data. The Commerce Department generates 24 terabytes’ worth each day and estimates that it makes use of less than 4 terabytes. The challenge for CDOs is to make better use of that rich array of data, perhaps through partnerships with the private sector. But once data is combined and put into a broader context, it comes under the purview of a…
  • CIO. Created in 1996 under the IT Management Reform Act (also known as the Clinger-Cohen Act), the CIO position was introduced to deal with two major problems: paying today’s prices for yesterday’s technologies and having too many “runaway systems” (IT projects that were over budget, behind schedule and not delivering the promised functionality). But there are other key concerns, so one also needs a…
  • CTO. This might be one of the more muddled roles, and the confusion has prompted lawmakers to draft legislation that would better define it. During the Obama administration, the CTO’s responsibility shifted from defining how technology can transform the way the government delivers health care, for example, to serving as a SWAT team to salvage the (using the most common phrase) botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act; recruiting IT talent from Silicon Valley to come to D.C.; supporting the study of science, technology, engineering and math; and encouraging more women to work in the technology field. Regardless, one still needs a…
  • Chief information security officer and a…
  • Chief privacy officer to ensure that individuals’ personal data isn’t revealed. But once information is aggregated and stored, perhaps one needs a…
  • Chief knowledge officer. And who will use the data, information and knowledge outside the agencies and outside the government? We need to turn to the…
  • Chief customer officer.

I know I haven’t covered every new chieftain (e.g., the chief digitization officer).


OK, stop. It is time for a CIO Act that explicitly recognizes the vital role information management plays in 21st-century government, including accumulation, analysis, dissemination and security. It is time for a statute that sets the purpose, responsibilities, reporting, accountability and budget.

Such an act would justify in word and responsibility the elevation of the federal CIO to a level worthy of Senate confirmation, just as it would justify the reporting of agency and departmental CIOs to respective Cabinet officers and agency heads.