Government CIO Role Needs Tune-up

Government CIO Role Needs Tune-up

Ten years after the US government first created federal CIO positions as a "frontal attack on poor agency performance," a new report from Gartner notes the track record of those CIOs in achieving better IT investment outcomes remains decidedly mixed.

So Gartner wants lawmakers, agency heads and CIOs to take the opportunity offered by plans by the US Congress to consider reauthorization of the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) in the next 12 to 24 month to address some core issues and build on lessons learned from a decade of federal CIO evolution.

At a time when the Australian Customs Department is still writhing from the pain of its botched Integrated Cargo System, which pushed major ports into gridlock last month, Gartner noted the US government has continued to struggle to deliver large, business transformation IT projects successfully. It cites Internal Revenue Service tax systems modernization, Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control modernization, Federal Bureau of Investigation virtual case management and Office of Personnel Management retirement system modernization as just a few cases where "sizable investments" have yielded highly questionable returns.

It suggests part of the problem may lie with a lack of involvement and support from the business side for CIO roles and responsibilities for IT strategy, investment, security and enterprise architecture.

Gartner says its own surveys as well as those by the Information Technology Association of America, the Industry Advisory Council and others all reveal government CIOs want to be regarded as business leaders engaged in ensuring that technology delivers performance improvement value to the agency and to citizens. Moreover, a majority of IT spending in government is focused on technical infrastructure support and incremental enhancements to established applications.

But the research agency says, in advice which may be as applicable in Australia as in the US, that lawmakers, agency heads and CIOs should address some core issues, and should build on lessons learned from a decade of federal CIO evolution:

1. Push joint accountability for successful IT outcomes even further into business or non-IT executives in government. The CIO cannot become the scapegoat for bad processes, poor management decisions and lack of executive understanding of major IT investment projects. Gartner sees effective IT governance structures as key here, backed up by legislation and the insistence of agency heads.

2. Give CIOs stronger authoritative voices in processes for investment decisions where IT services and management capabilities are expected to play a major role. Gartner says policymakers should use authorizing legislation to accomplish this, backed up by changes in internal policies by agency heads.

3. Focus CIO accountability on delivering value and effective mission support as it relates to performance and results. Gartner suggests executive and legislative oversight must recalibrate the main focus on demonstrated improvements in IT efficiencies and business-enabled results, while agency heads and policymakers should focus CIOs' performance assessments on these matters.

4. Consider ways to address information management, information policy and technology management more effectively. With such daunting responsibilities, it is unclear that government CIOs have the capacity for all three areas.

5. Demand standardized CIO performance scorecards that show impact beyond projects and compliance with requirements (better if integrated into the Program Assessment Rating Tool process).

The lessons may come in handy for new Australian whole-of-government CIO Ann Steward, who has been armed largely with carrots rather than sticks, in her new role. Announcing her appointment in June Parliamentary Secretary Eric Abetz conceded Steward would have no power to force departments to follow recommendations from AGIMO, while insisting the task she was being given was not impossible. He said Steward would influence departments by encouraging policy rather than mandating it, while returning AGIMO to the Department of Finance - with its mandate to scrutinize the financing of technology projects - would give her some leverage.

When that doesn't work out as planned the Australian government may like to look to the US for a decade's worth of experience.

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