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GAO: Federal Agencies Should Adopt Private Sector Practices to Overcome CIO Challenges

Former federal CIO panelists reported difficulty achieving meaningful collaboration with other managers.

Over the years, Congress has enacted various laws in an attempt to improve the government’s management of IT. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has previously reported on challenges faced by federal agency Chief Information Officers (CIOs), was asked to review the extent of alignment among the responsibilities of federal agency CIOs, their private sector counterparts, and the overall Federal CIO located in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

A majority of the 71 private sector CIOS who responded to GAO’s survey reported having responsibilities that aligned with those of agency CIOs in 13 of 14 key IT management areas. These areas include strategic planning, investment management, and information security. One area of responsibility (the statistical policy area) was reported by more than half of respondents as being outside their scope of responsibility. In addition, CIO respondents also reported sharing responsibility with other executives in each IT management area.

GAO found that private sector CIO respondents were highly educated and experienced, with a majority reporting previous IT-related experience, previous CIO experience, industry knowledge, and a college degree. Notably, a majority of respondents reported that their degrees were not IT-related. Respondents reported an average tenure in their current CIO role of about six years. Among respondents, CIOs with more authority over technology-related decisions tended to have a higher level of previous CIO experience, as well as the longest tenures.

The government watchdog also found that responsibilities currently assigned to the Federal CIO correspond to those of agency CIOs in 10 of the 14 key IT management areas. The Federal CIO’s responsibilities also correspond to those of private sector survey respondents in each of five responsibility areas directly relevant to the roles of both. However, GAO noted that the Federal CIO position is not established in law, and its main legal authorities remain those established in 2002 for the OMB position from which the role was established. As such, its responsibilities are often more limited in key CIO management areas than those of the other types of CIOs. For example, the Federal CIO is not responsible for ensuring that cybersecurity duties are carried out. By formalizing the Federal CIO position and establishing responsibilities and authorities over government-wide IT management, GAO believes that the position’s impact over federal IT may be more consistent over time and across administrations.

Private sector and former agency CIOs participating in panel discussions as part of GAO’s review reported challenges faced by federal agency CIOs. Specifically, private sector CIO panelists stated that collaboration between the CIO and other senior executives is essential to driving successful business outcomes. Conversely, former federal CIO panelists reported difficulty achieving meaningful collaboration with other managers. Panelists stated that federal agencies have an organizational culture where the CIO does not have sufficient visibility with executive decision makers, and cannot regularly share knowledge and information with other executives. Furthermore, panelists stated that differing definitions of IT can result in the appropriation of funding for technology to divisions outside the purview of the CIO. Without shared accountability with other senior executives, it can be difficult for agency CIOs to secure resources for IT initiatives that meet the agency’s goals.

Back in 2011, GAO reported that CIOs did not consistently have responsibility for several major areas of IT and information management as defined by law or deemed critical to effective IT management. At the time, GAO also noted that just over half of CIOs reported directly to the heads of their respective agencies.

Some of the challenges currently faced by federal agencies in recruiting and retaining CIOs could be overcome by emulating private sector practices, particularly in terms of communication and collaboration with decision makers.

When recruiting, private sector panelists stated that their companies often look for managerial skills, such as project management skills, when hiring CIOs. By contrast, former agency CIO panelists stated that technical skills are often a primary driver in the selection of agency CIOs.

GAO is recommending that Congress consider formalizing the Federal CIO position and establishing responsibilities and authorities for government-wide IT management.

The watchdog is also making two recommendations to the Director of OMB to increase emphasis on collaboration between CIOs and other executives, and to take steps to ensure that managerial skills have an appropriate role in CIO hiring criteria.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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