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Lawmakers call for fewer, more powerful CIOs

Jan. 23, 2013 - 04:54PM   |  

House lawmakers want to overhaul how the federal government buys and manages information technology, starting with paring down the number of executives who are responsible for IT projects.

At last count, the federal government has some 250 chief information officers. The Justice Department, for example, has about 40, and the Transportation Department has 35, House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said at a hearing Tuesday.

Issa has drafted legislation that would reduce the number of CIOs in government to one per agency and empower those remaining with more authority to decide how IT dollars are spent.

“The first step in addressing any problem is determining who is responsible and holding people accountable,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., at the hearing.

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel told lawmakers Tuesday that existing laws provide agency CIOs with adequate authority to get their jobs done.

However, more than a decade after Congress passed the Clinger-Cohen Act, which mandated that each agency have a CIO, up to 80 percent of large government IT programs are plagued by cost overruns and failures, said David Powner with the Government Accountability Office. Agencies must have strong and accountable CIOs to improve transparency, overhaul failing projects and carry out administration initiatives such as consolidating data centers.

Powner expressed concern that a government website that is supposed to report the status of federal IT projects — called the IT Dashboard — is plagued by incomplete and unreliable data. For example, according to the website, the Defense Department had no troubled projects reported on the site last fall — the same time that the Air Force canceled a $1 billion failed logistics system project, Powner said.

At the hearing, former committee chairman Tom Davis said some CIOs are “toothless tigers” and don’t have adequate authority over IT spending.

VanRoekel said one challenge CIOs face is planning IT investments on a single-year budget.

Powner said that, despite the limited budget authority of many CIOs, some still succeed. He highlighted the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Homeland Security CIOs as examples.

VanRoekel is pushing for common IT services such as email and human resources to be centralized under a department CIO while other mission-critical systems can remain at the bureau level.

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