This is a part of a larger look into federal CIOs and IT operations. Be sure to look at the rest of the series, which captures the unique challenges federal CIOs are facing.
CIOs in private and public sectors have to forcefully but amicably take a seat at the table in the C-suite. While this may be a point of contention for corporate CIOs, the federal government initiated legislation, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), to breakdown such barriers.
FITARA was enacted in December 2014 and declared the rightful authority of federal CIOs as prominent decision makers of agency IT budgeting strategy. Though the act is for federal CIOs, it also serves as a model for business execution in the private sector.
David Nelson, CIO of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), worked in private sector IT and telecom for 28 years before his transition to the U.S. government. "If you bring somebody in from outside, to be a CIO for a federal agency," Nelson told CIO Dive, the transition will initially make CIOs feel "frustrated in learning just how to do things" on the government's terms.
Nelson maintains the most important practice CIOs bring from the private to the public sector is forging relationships with C-suite officials.
"When working in the private sector, the CIOs best friends are still going to be the CFO and your acquisition chief, whoever that would be, and the CEO or COO, depending on how that organization works," said Nelson. "That's going to be the really important connection in how to get things done."
In the government, CIOs still have the same hierarchy of leaders reflective in corporate America, but they are also accompanied by regulations "coming from the outside" to aid in their mission, according to Nelson.
Scoring federal agencies
A lack of transparency in operations and leadership threatens the influence and therefore the initiatives federal CIOs wish to see within their agencies. FITARA is the "first major overhaul" of federal IT in nearly 20 years.
Its guidelines require agencies to report data center inventories, optimization strategies and associated metrics, schedules, investment plans and cost reductions, according to Shawn P. McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights.
The purpose of FITARA is to empower federal CIOs to do things differently because "a lot of decisions for overall direction are made by understanding where money is going," according to McCarthy. The FITARA reports provide government officials with transparent logistics of an agency's IT structure and, in turn, force agency officials to collaborate.
FITARA scorecard grading system
- Agency CIO authority enhancements
- Transparency and risk management
- Portfolio review
- Data center optimization initiative
FITARA's most recent scorecard from June 2017 gave the NRC a 'C-' after it received an 'F' for portfolio review and data center optimization initiatives (DCOI). However, the NRC score is comparably high to other agencies because the agency received an 'A' for CIO authority enhancements and a 'B' for transparency and risk management.
A "minus" sign in a FITARA grade indicates the CIO did not report to the Secretary or Deputy Secretary of the agency, according to Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX) of the Subcommittee on IT.
The grade for DCOI is partially based on the resulted savings, made known by the Office of Management and Budget. The initiatives include freezing data center construction, consolidating and eliminating data centers, while migrating to cloud-based storage, according to McCarthy.
Nelson did find success in terms of FITARA's restructuring of the role of the federal CIO, which gave them "decision authority," according to Nelson. Other agencies, including the Department of Justice, Department of Labor and Department of the Treasury, received failing scores in CIO authority enhancements.
The current tumultuous status of federal CIOs may have had an impact on some of the low agency metrics. Agencies with lower scores can sometimes reflect views that IT is an issue entirely up to the CIO to resolve, according to Rick Holgate, research director at Gartner.
While successful for some agencies, others see FITARA's purpose as only advantageous in theory.
"I never had much faith in FITARA," Mark Schwartz, former CIO of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), told CIO Dive. The act's purpose was to ensure the CIO's influence on overall agency strategy, but "influence isn't really something you get from a law," according to Schwartz.
"Congress says I should have more influence, but if I can't, through the force of my personality and my skills, get that influence, then FITARA's probably not going to help me do it," said Schwarz. He admitted that he didn't feel he had the influence he wanted to see during his time as a federal CIO, but it was largely due to the false perception that IT is not a department of strategy and instead a cost center.
A CIO may have been frustrated by FITARA because of either a boss or peer preventing the CIO from executing a project they had in mind, Hurd said in response to critics of FITARA while speaking at a MeriTalk event in Washington D.C. Tuesday. To remedy this innovation barrier, FITARA's next hearing in December will include other agency leadership like the CFO, Hurd said.
Federal CIOs need a connection to their fellow executives, but ultimately it is the makeup of the agency that will grant such connections — law or no law.
"Any good CIO, any good IT organization needs to understand the mission or the business piece of what they're doing. It's not all about IT," said Nelson; it's about how to "streamline business processes" for the betterment of the agency.