May 27 2008

Mission Control

For CIOs, supporting their agencies' missions propels IT transformation.

Being a federal CIO is clearly a complex job. CIOs must overcome many challenges if they are to fill their roles successfully and operate as part of the senior leadership team. Many things keep them awake at night: gaining control over the IT budget and investment process, ensuring effective IT governance, leveraging technology to accomplish the mission, providing sufficient and efficient service, and implementing modernization projects capably, to name a few.

These aren’t assumed challenges. Each of the past 18 years, the Information Technology Association of America has interviewed federal IT chiefs. This year, ITAA met with 46 CIOs from 30 agencies to find out what they perceive to be their most serious problems.

The report’s title communicates quite well the dramatic changes and difficult challenges CIOs face and their perception of what takes priority: Transforming IT to Support the Mission.

Again this year, I served as chairman of the CIO Survey Task Group. With ITAA’s permission, I will share some of the findings from the survey. The top priorities, in order of rank, are:

I.T. SECURITY AND CYBER SECURITY: By a significant majority, the area of security and cybersecurity remains the top challenge.

STANDARDIZATION AND CONSOLIDATION: Most CIOs mention IT infrastructure when discussing standardization and consolidation, the focus being hardware, system and operating software, and networks. CIOs indicate that their key objectives are to manage cost, improve security, provide quality service and enhance IT capabilities through modernization to meet mission requirements. CIOs also mention standardization and consolidation with respect to IT management processes and upgrades of both common management and unique mission systems.

I.T. WORKFORCE: The high number of IT workers retiring now or within the next few years is of particular concern. Aggravating this, CIOs say, are recruiting difficulties, the slow hiring process, a perceived disparity in pay and benefits, a perceived lack of commitment to training and staff development, and a bias against federal employment among potential hires.

fact: 23% of CIOs report to their agencies’ chief financial officers, up from 5% last year.
SOURCE: ITAA Federal CIO Survery, February 2008

The government’s chief techies also express anxiety over their ability to retain their current employees. CIOs believe they have less flexibility and fewer lures compared with their private-sector counterparts and note the emergence of a predatory environment where other agencies poach current staff. The result? The current pool of IT employees change jobs more often within government, but growth in the supply of federal IT workers fails to keep pace.

I.T. GOVERNANCE: CIOs present governance as the scope of management practices dealing with how agencies socialize, make and implement IT decisions. Federal CIOs express the most concern over their organizations’ ability to align IT to mission goals and craft plans and road maps to operate IT effectively and securely.

Most CIOs consider the IT governance processes in their organizations immature. They cite the following reasons: a lack of interest among the political leadership and senior career executives, unwillingness by some departments to cede control, conflicting internal agendas and the complexity of IT management processes.

RESOURCES: CIOs believe four elements contribute most to a lack of resources:

  • political leaders who shift resources to meet administration priorities;
  • unfunded mandates introduced by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget;
  • back-to-back continuing resolutions that have a cumulative effect on funding; and
  • yearlong continuing resolutions that, over time, effectively result in budget cuts.

There clearly seems to be a disconnect between the growth in federal IT budgets, which have increased annually at a moderate pace, and the concerns CIOs voiced to ITAA.

IMPLEMENTING PLANS: In the past, ITAA has reported steady improvement in IT planning and management processes by OMB and federal agencies. While acknowledging this progress, we also have reported that the ability of these same organizations to implement their IT plans is not on par with their planning capabilities. CIOs say they need better tracking systems, more project and budget control, better methods for dealing with complexity and interdependencies across projects, and improved oversight.

INFORMATION SHARING: Many CIOs report a need to improve their organizations’ ability to share information internally.

A lesser though still significant number cite data exchange across agencies as a critical challenge. In general, where CIOs see external data sharing as a priority, the focus is on serving distinct communities of interest, most prominently multiple organizations sharing a common overall mission or new mission strategies requiring disparate organizations to work together.

But whether the sharing is internal or external, technology chiefs say the most critical component is trust. They also note that they need to balance the depth of information shared against the need to secure that information.

Focusing on the Here and Now

Although government CIOs have always struggled with vexing challenges, what is a tough job is likely to become tougher, and soon. With a change in the administration and a new Congress less than a year away, many current projects will need to downshift or be reconsidered. Using past transitions as a guide, now is not the time for bold new ideas and initiatives; instead, federal IT chiefs must demonstrate the ability to implement projects already under way, provide IT services that agency employees value and, perhaps most important, impress transition teams and new political leaders who will soon come on board.