CIOs advised how to play the political game

NEW ORLEANS - Information technology is one tool being used by the political forces that shape the federal bureaucracy, and government IT professionals should consider the political landscape in pursuing their missions, according to a former federal IT executive.

"IT is the continuation of power politics in a bureaucracy by other means," said Paul Strassman of Information Economics Press and recently the acting CIO at NASA and former Defense Department systems chief. He was speaking Tuesday at the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils' annual Management of Change Conference here.

Strassman told the audience of almost 300 government and business IT leaders that politics is waged in the agencies in basic scenarios, with many different games ? each with its own rules ? being played out.

For instance, there is the IT political play, he said, which focuses on issues such as budget and the power struggle between chief information officers and chief financial officers.

"This is the age-old confrontation between the CIO and CFO: Who's in charge?" Strassman said. The two executives view their realities differently ? the financial manager is concerned with such aspects as appropriations and the total cost of ownership for systems, while the IT manager is project-oriented. Developing business cases is the Office of Management and Budget's way of encouraging resolution of the conflict, he said.

Strassman's advice to CIOs who want to win the budget game? Play it the way the CFO wants. Build the business case and run the numbers to make IT a fundamental part of the agency's underlying cost structure.

"The reason we can't play the budget game is because all our costs are long term and full-cost," he said. "Switch as quickly as possible to services, where you get a monthly bill." This changes the view of IT to short-term, marginal costs.

Another benefit of moving to services-based IT is the transfer of risk to vendors, Strassman said. Agencies shouldn't have to shoulder the costs of obsolescent equipment, software bugs and other headaches.

Outsourcing is key to playing the politics of government and coming out ahead, but Strassman scolded some agencies for surrendering broad responsibilities to systems integrators. The CIOs "have to be the systems integrator of last resort," he said, not in charge of the details of projects but making fundamental decisions about core elements, such as structure and security.

Another scenario is strategic IT politics ? understanding the value of IT beyond the physical assets normally booked on a balance sheet. The most valuable government assets today are the people, and people don't show up on balance sheets, he said.

"When you look at an organization, the valuation by the squinty-eyed CFO is its carcass value," Strassman said. Agencies in the government and companies in the private sector are worth far more than the replacement cost of their hardware, software, buildings and so on.

"The reconstitution cost of an agency is its human capital," he said. "The role of the CIO in the future is to take over where the CFO is totally deficient ? the CFO takes care of the dead assets, the CIO of the living ones."

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