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Will government ‘IT special forces’ put CIO role in jeopardy?

Kenneth Corbin | June 22, 2016
As new units of IT experts take shape across departments and agencies to advance high-priority projects, lawmakers and a government watchdog warn that CIO authorities must be preserved.

The Obama administration has been building out what might be seen as the IT version of special forces -- sophisticated, highly skilled teams of experts charged with parachuting into an agency and rehabilitating flagging technology initiatives.

But where does that leave the CIO?

A new report from the Government Accountability Office has raised the concern that new teams of digital specialists might not effectively partner with the agency CIO. That invites a dynamic that would run counter to the spirit of the recently enacted FITARA law, which sought to strengthen the role of the CIO to more effectively oversee IT projects.

"Under FITARA, nothing of any significance related to IT should be happening at agencies without the involvement and sign-off of agency CIOs. Period," Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), said during a recent House hearing examining the role of the administration's Digital Services teams.

The General Services Administration's so-called 18F and OMB's U.S. Digital Services (USDS), both established in 2014, came in response to the broad recognition that government agencies, for a variety of reasons, were struggling with their IT projects, ranging from efforts to set up ambitious new cloud computing deployments to more incremental modernization of legacy systems.

Increasingly, agencies have been setting up their own digital teams, receiving charters and appealing for funding from OMB. But those efforts can create organizational and operational challenges, according to David Powner, director of IT management issues at GAO.

"We have concerns about some of these agency teams doing an end-around the CIO organizations," Powner said. "There's multiple arrangements that could work -- we just don't want to undermine the authority of the CIOs."

In the GAO report, the agency noted that the policy of U.S. Digital Services "does not describe the expected relationship between CIOs and these teams."

"Until OMB updates its policy and ensures that the responsibilities between the CIOs and Digital Services teams are clearly defined, it is unclear whether CIOs will be able to fulfill their statutory responsibilities with respect to IT management of the projects undertaken by the Digital Service teams," the agency wrote.

That raises a red flag for Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), one of the architects of the FITARA IT reform bill. By empowering agency CIOs, a central tenant of FITARA, the legislation aims to ease the challenges of running a centralized IT shop by reining in the bureaus and sub-agencies within the larger organization that have often charted their own course in technology development and acquisition.

Digital Services effort needs CIOs to succeed

For the Digital Service efforts to succeed, Connolly argued, the CIO must be integrally involved and retain authority in any new agency IT push.


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