Nov 05 2008

In Stride

With preparation, CIOs can ready their federal IT shops to take a leading role in the transition.

A presidential election produces significant changes — in leadership, in policies, in style and in culture.

The election of someone other than an incumbent president turbo charges this change. We are entering such a period: great change combined with great uncertainty for CIOs and their organizations. The purpose of this article is to help the CIO (or deputy CIO, where a political appointee will be replaced in the coming months) think through an approach to surviving this period of change.

The Big Issues

During the campaign, big issues confronting the nation — war, domestic security, the economy, taxes and health care, to name a few — attract the most attention. The management of government falls below these top-flight issues. At most, the next administration will position it as a secondary issue requiring reform. It is important to pay attention to the top national issues and campaign promises, however; this will help you understand the incoming president’s policy framework and his perspective on the role of government.

Although the candidates are not apt to focus on government management during the campaign, there are ways you can broaden your understanding of the management issues they consider key. The best approach is to take the time to study the big management issues presented by those who have deep experience with government and who are attempting to influence its course. You don’t have to look far to find white papers, manifestos and other briefs created as transition resources by trade associations, think tanks and even by the campaigns themselves. While almost every organization has its biases, they tend to gravitate to a common set of central management issues that, taken collectively, will cover the breadth of policies that might be adopted and why. Seek out these documents and become conversant on policy and reform options and rationales.

At the same time, continue to look for signals from the incoming Congress regarding program and budget priorities within authorizing and appropriating committees, especially with respect to your specific agency. You also need to understand how the committees that have jurisdiction over your organization’s mission and management will conduct their oversight, and what specific areas they will focus on following the power shift in January.

Illustration: Elizabeth Hinshaw
"You must quickly decide how to
position IT as a positive and
critical change agent."

— Paul Wohlleben

Lead, Don’t Follow

Once you have a grasp of the management issues important to the incoming administration and next Congress, you are ready to represent your CIO organization to the new team.

The first opportunity to position your organization and its key issues happened last spring and summer when agencies prepared organizational and issue briefings for the campaign teams and the transition team representing the incoming administration. In some cases, CIOs took part in these briefings and gained some insight into the composition of the transition team. If you were lucky, you might have found members with whom you had a prior relationship, whose views you already know. That provides a great beginning.

But in most cases, CIOs had never met the team members and had to prepare their briefing input without that insider advantage. That places the CIO and the IT organization in a much more defensive position.

Your organizational objective with the transition team has several facets:

First, you want to ensure continuity of operations and key projects begun before the transition. To succeed, you must demonstrate deep understanding of the CIO and IT budgets, the alternatives available and the likely outcomes, as they pertain to both management and mission.

fact: 50-50 Split: About half of the 26 major agencies have politically appointed CIOs. The others are career feds.

Second, you must quickly decide how to position IT as a positive and critical change agent in support of the new administration’s objectives. That means you must be adept at aligning ongoing IT modernization and improvement efforts with the priorities of the new team.

Third, you should use the transition to improve the capacity of the CIO organization to manage and deliver IT services and support mission objectives.

Chart Your Road Map

Your personal objective with the transition team should be very clear as well. You need to focus on positioning yourself as a primary leader who can assist the new administration in achieving its goals. This can be tricky: On the one hand, you must convince the new team that you are committed to their success. On the other hand, you must not take any actions that short-circuit existing federal regulations and policies.

It can be a cruel, unforgiving world out there in the federal bureaucracy. Look out for your organization, and yourself, during the transition
and beyond.

Photo: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images