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Federal CIOs Define What It Means to Have a Seat at the Table

Federal chief information officers in many ways are being held accountable for executing on the administration’s IT agenda. But the nation’s top tech leader says her counterparts across government need to be fully empowered to carry out those requirements.

“We are still working on empowering CIOs with the full authority to affect the outcomes for which we are holding them accountable,” said federal CIO Suzette Kent.

Speaking at a May 3 event co-hosted by the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC) and Foreign Affairs, Kent discussed the evolving role of the CIO and what’s expected from these tech leaders as the federal government executes its IT modernization strategy.

Traditionally, agency CIOs have been the ones responsible for the hardware and software at government agencies, including ensuring that phones are working and laptops are purchased. These are all important and necessary, but “[CIOs] weren’t the fist people you thought of around delivery of mission,” Kent said. Today, CIOs are the leaders who put mission critical tools in the hands of the workforce, they are commanded to plan ahead for many years and they are the drivers of innovation across agencies.

Kent said government needs to “close the gap between the people who are setting the vision and the people who have to deliver the vision.” The ongoing conversation about the role of the CIO isn’t new, but Kent believes that recent legislation such as the 2014 Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act makes clear that CIOs are accountable for IT investments. “In some of the legislation it specifically says, ‘responsible for failure,’” Kent said.

FITARA requires that department CIOs be empowered to review and approve IT contracts, ensure projects are being developed in shorter increments and to root out waste and duplication in IT budgets. Kent also stressed that CIOs need authority to hire people with the right skillsets and to set direction. They also need a broad range of management skills.

“I am not here for my great coding skills, and neither are many of my fellow CIOs,” Kent said jokingly. “We are here to drive change for the 21st century.”

To do that, CIOs must also have a seat at the table with citizens and other leaders in government, she added.

What CIO Authority Looks Like in Government

Speaking on a separate panel following Kent’s discussion, CIOs shared their take on having a seat at the table and what that looks like today.

“It’s important to have a seat at the table, [but] it’s also what you do with that seat at the table,” said Jason Gray, CIO at the Education Department.

Gray said his focus is on maturing processes established under FITARA, noting that the agency is moving from simply complying with the law to ensuring the spirit of the law is embedded in the agency’s DNA.

One example he shared was during his early days at Education. After setting a hard deadline for improving a multimillion dollar project that had been failing for years, Gray used his authority under FITARA to cancel it. “It became a really big issue, but everyone was supportive,” he said. “That support was key.”

Fast forward about six months later. Another project in a different office was failing. After back and forth conversations about the project, the office decided on its own to cancel the project. That was a turning point for Gray and the department. “I don’t have to be the oversight with the stick, if you will,” Gray said. “Yes, I’m responsible from an agency standpoint, but I want people to be good stewards and make those decisions.”

Transportation Department CIO Vicki Hildebrand, who has been on the job about six months, said she has a seat at the table and is working to move the needle forward. She stressed the support of DOT Secretary Elaine Chao and her understanding of IT as enabler as being one of the reasons she accepted the CIO role.

“I need to build up a body of accomplishments now,” she said, noting a quick win she spearheaded that saved one of her department’s sub-agencies $1 million.

Chad Sheridan, who recently became IT Director for the Agriculture Department’s Farm Production and Conservation mission area, shared a different perspective.

As one of several agency CIOs within a larger department, Sheridan said authority comes with execution. He highlighted USDA’s recent farmers.gov rollout as a deliverable that ushered in moral authority from the USDA secretary.

“It doesn’t matter what you say you’re going to do with the authority you have,” Sheridan said. “If you don’t shift, if you don’t deliver, it doesn’t matter.”

For additional reading, check out these GovLoop resources on federal IT modernization, as well as our ongoing series CIO Conversations

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