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Federal CIOs and Their Evolving Role in Government

The chief information officer of a federal agency must provide innovative solutions in a challenging budget environment. The CIO is also charged with establishing a governmentwide system that ensures information-sharing and maintains effective information security and privacy controls across the federal government.

In a recent event from the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC) and Foreign Affairs, participants heard directly from CIOs about the dynamic role that they play in federal agencies, their challenges and priorities.

Rod Turk, Acting CIO of the Commerce Department, first stressed the importance of three key words for any federal enterprise team: innovate, lead and serve.

“My people not only need to serve their customers, they also need to serve each other,” he said. “We’re in this as a team sport. It’s about how we make ourselves successful and move the football down the field.”

By channeling Malcolm Gladwell’s “law of the few” (those with a particular and rare set of social gifts), federal agencies can implement the change and innovation needed to drive technology modernization.

“The CIO of the future and the workforce of the future needs to look like those with softer skills like human capital management, project management and finance,” Turk added. “Technology skills will be secondary to those softer skills to move that football down the field.”

In addition to leadership and workforce priorities needed for technology transformation, federal CIOs have a variety of priorities and challenges going forward. Jason Gray, CIO of the Education Department; Vicki Hildebrand, CIO of the Transportation Department; and Chad Sheridan, who recently became IT Director for the Agriculture Department’s Farm Production and Conservation mission area, shared the impact of current legislation. They talked about the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, the Modernizing Government Technology Act and current priorities.


For DOT’s Hildebrand, who is fairly new to government from the private sector, she is ready to take on bureaucracy and drive more efficient processes. “After six months of getting exposure to DOT, we have some opportunities around the federation of the department,” she said. “It’s clear we have duplicative spending. We need to shore up a lot of legacy systems. We’ve also started doing business requirements and putting together a prototype in a week as opposed to the usual years-long process.”

Sheridan at USDA is particularly concerned with improving customer experience. “Our mantra is moving towards a single IT organization and trying to reduce the number of like things to get common investments,” he said. “Our two main thrusts are increasing the opportunity for self-service. We’ve also got to improve the outcomes for the deliverables of our employees that people trust.”

Across the board, the CIOs found legislation like FITARA and the MGT Act to be helpful in forming collaborative relationships and driving efficiencies through shared services. 

Impact of FITARA

“FITARA helps reinvigorate the idea of a seat at the table,” Sheridan said. “It enforces the idea of transparency spend.”

“FITARA has been great at Department of Education,” Gray added. “It allowed me to establish an IT portfolio from a governance standpoint. When I got to Education, we were at a C+ and we’re at a B+ today. It’s not just a CIO thing, we also need the other leaders like the chief security officer and chief customer officer as well as the acquisition side to partner together and move us forward.”

Impact of IT Modernization Report and Respective Efforts

The panel was asked about their thoughts on the recent White House Modernization report with its emphasis on software-defined networks and shared services. While Hildebrand saw the importance of shared services, Sheridan had his reservations.

“We have new networks contracts coming from GSA [General Services Administration],” Sheridan said. “The danger with shard services is to make sure providers understand the levels and requirements of the mission need. Often, in government we have a race to the bottom because of cost. But we need to look at what the private industry does and make sure they meet the performance levels. The easiest thing to measure is cost and budget, but we need to get better at measuring outcomes.”

At DOT, Hildebrand said improving shared services is vital. “Efficiency and cost savings are an important part of the process. But if I don’t at least slightly improve the experience users get from some of that shared service, it doesn’t matter what else I do, I get an F.”

To better account for IT inventory and spending, more federal agencies, like the Education Department have been turning to technology business management frameworks (TBM) – a set of best practices to map IT need and inventory directly to spending. “I’m using visualization and TBM to inform my decisions and what we’re doing for modernization,” Gray said.

Last year, we did an IT visualization roadmap to understand our as-is environment and to-be environment,” he added. “We’re leveraging that with TBM – part of our cross agency priority goal. It paints my landscape for me and tells me where the systems are that have a bunch of manual processes. TBM showed me I have over 20 cloud service providers and not just on the government side. So it helps me figure out what I’m going to target in terms of strategy.”

For future legislation, the CIOs stressed the need for enabling innovation to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology landscape. “There’s no such thing as a 5-year plan in IT,” Hildebrand said. “You have to be able to take this project management framework and apply it to that unique business case. If you force fit a structure to every business case, you’re just going to delay things. In terms of enablement, I would like to see more support from support functions like procurement, human resources and functions that make it easier and faster to get what you need. We’re falling further and further behind, but we have to find ways to accelerate.”

As for parting wisdom for other federal CIOs, the panel shared that it’s important to go beyond the authority of simply having a seat at the table. “It’s important to have a seat at the table,” Gray concluded. “It’s also what you do with that seat. We started with we have to comply with but then we also have to mature. It’s really maturing that process and making sure all the dots are connected for IT.”

For more reading on this subject, check out: Federal CIOs Define What It Means to Have a Seat at the Table

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