Putting the 'C' in Public Sector 'CIO'

Having spent almost equal time in my career between helping the private and public sectors, I've come to the conclusion that there's probably no greater disparity in roles between them than that of the Chief Information Officer (CIO). In the private sector, the CIO typically has significant authority to lead the technical direction and resources of the organization. In the public sector, the CIO often handcuffed by a lack of real power, authority, and control to affect the organization's technical direction in any meaningful way.

If the administration, OMB, Congress, and the federal CIO really want to fix this, it requires a real dialogue about the realities federal IT managers face. The 25 point plan is a good start for defining the ‘what’, but what about the organizational, political, and operational obstacles impeding the ‘how’. Here are some realities for government CIOs I've noted over the years:

1. They frequently lack control over vast portions of the IT portfolio
Despite progress in terms of centralization and standardization, the reality remains that IT policy, acquisition, and management are still so fragmented and decentralized that an organization's CIO often has no say in what the organization does in terms of technology. Few organizations have truly contemplated and implemented a good framework for federated IT management. Instead, the centralized organization is typically responsible for setting high-level policies (often ignored), providing commoditized technologies and services such as desktop computing and call center support, and administrative services such as records management.

2. Their customers don’t trust you with much else
Given the history of massive technology investments that haven’t paid off, the sheer time it takes for some IT organizations to move on even simple tech deployments, and the centralized organization’s inability to bypass its own (and frequently legislatively mandated) policies and processes, mission leaders are simply reluctant to trust centralized IT organizations with managing the design, construction, and implementation of many systems. Often only after something is built and stable is it turned over to the centralized organization for hosting.

3. Their governance framework is broken
More than half the investments the IT governance board or committee looks at are already purchased, and 90%+ of them are already fully baked. How many ‘no-gos’ does the function actually result in? By ignoring the function's lack of value, the real opportunity is missed – to fix it, make it multi-staged, multi-tiered, and have the function involved earlier and more often in the lifecycle.

4. Most, if not all real IT is outsourced but not considered or managed as such
If you look at the service model most government IT organizations use today, they are essentially using an almost completely outsourced approach. Yet, few manage it as if this is the case, ending up with the worst of both worlds.

5. 10-20% of the internal people do almost everything
If you look at who is really driving value and who is keeping the lights on, you will typically find a small cadre of folks. That is not to say others are doing nothing – just that they typically aren't driving significant organizational value.

6. In some cases, the CIO is simply not qualified
Most government IT leaders are highly qualified, but some are not. In some organizations, IT leaders have no previous experience running an IT organization or have little or no experience with supporting technology requirements and were chosen from a pool of SES level executives. In some cases the individual recognizes this and builds in a layer of management with appropriate experience; but this doesn't change the reality that their role in these cases is frequently ineffectual.

7. In some cases, the CIO isn't
In some organizations the IT leader isn't even the individual truly responsible for managing the IT organization because the title and responsibilities flow by policy to a manager or senior level position in an organization. The logic is that the responsibilities are best positioned with the individual accountable for the entire organization. In other cases the role goes with other management oversight responsibilities including HR, facilities, and administration.

8. To make real progress, they may have to fall on their sword
Getting true control, making the big changes, and ruffling the feathers of the establishment often means in order to make real progress in fixing any of the above, they may not last long. Some of the biggest changes that have occurred in federal IT came when a CIO or equivalent sacrificed their long term prospects and expended all goodwill and political capital to make a change. 

So what does this reality translate into? It means a different approach is needed – the ‘How’ has to change: The selection of individuals with strong organizational AND technology experience; more emphasis on vendor management and multi-award contract structures; and leaders who sign up for breaking eggs to make the omelet. All of these must be embraced by federal IT leaders and the individuals that select them. It’s time to change the reality for federal IT.