The Great CIO Search

As an Aug. 8 deadline looms, federal agencies and departments are scrambling to find information chiefs

Wanted: one agency chief information officer, should be knowledgeable about technical issues in information resources management, economic analysis and improving business processes. Reports directly to agency head, annual salary is $115,700. Should be available to start by Aug. 8.

Want ads that expand on the above paragraph may start appearing in the employment sections of major metro newspapers. It's part of a new hiring twist that would depart from the political appointee process traditionally used to staff upper-level agency positions.

Twenty-four federal departments and agencies are moving forward on the process of hiring a CIO and reworking their organizational structure to meet the requirements under the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996. The departments and agencies have until Aug. 8 to establish, but not necessarily fill, the CIO position.

But what makes a good CIO? The issue is so important that the Federal Working Group of Chief Information Officers has set up a subgroup to define a CIO's role, and also determine what qualifications a good CIO needs. Recommendations are due to the Office of Management and Budget July 1.

So far, the answer seems to be someone who has an excellent business and management base, not just strong technology skills.

Agency CIOs will function as corporate officers, so it is important that this person understands the business of government, as well as technology, said Joe Thompson, CIO for the U.S. General Services Administration.

Yet it could be a mistake to assume that running government agencies is similar to running a private company. Many people have said that government should be run as a business, but anyone who tries has been a dismal failure, said Paul Strassman, who previously served as the Department of Defense's CIO. Prior to that, Strassman worked for Xerox, Kraft and General Foods.

Government should not be run for profit the way a business is, because government is about providing service, Strassman said.

That service orientation is what makes a government CIO's job so difficult. In a private organization, stock prices and other financial measures exist to measure a firm's performance. The government lacks decisive performance measures, said Hank Philcox, who is vice president and CIO for DynCorp and was the former head of the Internal Revenue Service's information systems group.

This would be the first CIO for many agencies, and that means they would be responsible for putting in place those performance measures. It's not just a matter of adding one new office to an organizational chart, said Alan Balutis, budget director for the Management and Information Division within the U.S. Department of Commerce. The position will be responsible for improving information technology management within an agency because the United States can no longer afford "to see a landscape littered with failed [information technology] projects," Balutis said.

Federal officials hope to avoid massive project failures by operating government more like a commercial enterprise -- doing long-term planning and evaluating payback of systems before choosing where to invest money.

While agency officials may hope to lure people from the corporate world to help achieve their goals, others are not so sure that the incentives are there.

"The biggest issue is the compensation disparity.... It will be a very, very tall order for [government agencies] to attract someone with the kind of experience and skills needed [from private industry]," said Philcox.

A federal CIO job pays $115,700 a year. If you add a bonus, which is often given in the commercial world, many CIOs would earn at least $200,000, Philcox said. A study published in the Feb. 15 issue of CIO magazine reports that 21 percent of respondents make more than $151,000 annually - and that's without the bonus.

Not everyone agrees that money would be a problem. Government is a vocation. You don't do it for money, you do it because of duty, said Strassman.

But even if agency officials found people with corporate experience who want the job, they still face a tremendous learning curve of at least a year. The cultural infrastructure of government agencies is very complex, because there are a huge number of people that you have to answer to, Philcox said. Government systems also are older and larger than most commercial systems.

Instead of seeking people from private industry, officials should first look inside their own agency, Philcox said. Next they could check out the state arena, then the private sector, and as a last choice people with purely academic knowledge, he said.

Internal candidates would be a top choice because they understand the budget process, they are familiar with the agency's role, and they can pick up the process quickly because of that background knowledge. State officials may not be familiar with a particular agency, but they will have worked in government, and thus will have less of a learning curve. The IRS recently choose this route and appointed Arthur Gross to its top information management spot. Gross previously was the deputy commissioner for revenue and information management with New York's Department of Taxation and Finance.

Whoever accepts the job must make sure they understand the rules of the game. Unless top managers have a clear sense of their goals, they are doomed to failure. If you don't know where you're going, neither a picture or a map will help, advised Strassman.

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