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Federal CIOs need more authority to better manage IT

Kenneth Corbin | June 12, 2013
Seeking ways to reduce duplication in federal IT spending and managing IT more efficiently, Senate panel hears pleas for stronger central authorities for department and agency CIOs.

Amid widespread agreement that the federal government has a long way to go toward improving efficiencies in its IT operations, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel argued before a Senate committee on Tuesday that giving department and agency CIOs stronger, central authority could help eliminate or consolidate duplicative technology projects.

Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, VanRoekel spoke of a "tremendous opportunity to improve our management of federal IT."

That opportunity rests on a drive toward centralization that would empower an agency CIO with the authority to coordinate IT projects across the various bureaus of the organization, which today too often keep their IT operations cordoned off under the direction of their own CIO.

"My vision of CIO authorities is the central CIO should really be the hub for all the commodity computing. There should be one help desk. There should be one email system, one way to buy a computer, one way to get mobile. And that CIO should also then provide services to the CIOs sitting in the periphery," VanRoekel says.

"I want the CIO of the Federal Aviation Administration to wake up every day thinking about flight safety, and I want them to think about flight safety when they go to bed at night. I don't want them to wake up and think, 'Is the email up and running? Are BlackBerries working?'" he adds. "That should be done elsewhere and we should focus the professionals on the mission at hand and get the centralization happening to root out duplication and drive everything in a do-once, use-often methodology."

The Need for Stronger CIO Authority
That view won the endorsement of perhaps the most vocal critic of wasteful government spending on Capitol Hill, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, the ranking member of the governmental affairs committee. Coburn estimates that of the roughly $80 billion in annual federal government IT expenditures, at least one-third is spent on unnecessary, duplicative or otherwise ineffective projects. He argues that much of that waste can be attributed to a severe management deficit that could be rectified by a stronger role for department and agency CIOs.

"If you're not going to give CIOs the authority to do what they need to do, why do you need CIOs?" Coburn says.

David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, offers a more conservative estimate of the potential savings from eliminating duplicative and wasteful IT spending, though he still sees billions of dollars that could be cut from federal tech budgets through stronger CIO authorities and greater transparency and accountability.

"I think the CIO authority thing is a big deal and that needs to be addressed," he says.


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