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Public Disservice

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2005-03-08 Print this article Print

Complex jobs, the inability to affect budgets, political minefields and low pay make recruiting federal CIOs a hard job.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has people problems. It can't find or retain the project managers and executives needed to implement one of its most important technology projects since Sept. 11, 2001.

That's the upshot of FBI Director Robert Mueller's testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee on Feb. 3. Mueller was on Capitol Hill to explain why the FBI has blown through $170 million and still doesn't have a virtual case file system in place. The virtual case file, the third leg of a technology overhaul dubbed Trilogy, is a case management system that would allow agents to share information more easily.

The FBI failed to outline requirements of the virtual case file system, inked a costly contract with Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in June 2001, and missed a December 2003 deadline to install the case system. At the heart of these issues: people.

"We lacked skill sets in our personnel such as qualified software engineering, program management and contract management," Mueller said in his testimony. "We also experienced a high turnover in Trilogy program managers and chief information officers."

At least Mueller has company. The tenure of a federal agency chief information officer averages 23 months, reports the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The FBI has had four CIOs since Sept. 11, 2001.

A bevy of reasons prevent the federal government from getting—and keeping—technology executives. Federal government executives inherit budgets set years prior in political negotiations. Projects are under the microscope of the director and inspector general of the agency, the Office of Management and Budget and Congress, among other masters.

Meanwhile, the CIO position is increasingly political as technology meets policy. For instance, merging information systems of the 22 agencies in the Department of Homeland Security is a direct result of a post-9/11 policy decision. President Bush appointed Steven Cooper from Corning as the CIO to do the job.

"These are very hard, high-risk jobs," says John Marshall, former CIO of the U.S. Agency for International Development and now a vice president at consulting firm CGI-AMS. "You're there to transform businesses, you have to work across other groups, it's tough to manage and compensation is generally lower than in the private sector."

Help Wanted: Chief Technical Officer for Information Technology, Defense Intelligence Agency. Location: US-DC, Washington, 20001. Salary range: $107,550 to $149,200. As Chief Technical Officer for Information Technology (CTO) the incumbent will play a pivotal role in providing technical and operational advice on infrastructure and intelligence community Information Technology (IT) endeavors ... May be subject to worldwide deployments to crisis situations. Source:www.usajobs.gov

When that CTO is hired by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the 23-month clock will start ticking.

But 23 months is hardly enough time to get anything done. According to the GAO, CIOs say they needed to stay in office three to five years to be effective.

Bottom line: A multiyear project can outrun a technology executive's tenure. Take the FBI's Trilogy project. Former FBI CIO Bob Dies joined in July 2000 and left after two years. Dies signed an initial contract with SAIC, which was based on hours worked and didn't outline specifications of the virtual case file project. Darwin John took over in July 2002, upgraded the FBI's hardware and network in the first leg of the Trilogy effort, and retired a year later. Wilson Lowry, former executive assistant director for administration at the FBI, served as interim CIO. Current CIO Zalmai Azmi took over on an interim basis before being officially appointed as CIO in May 2004. It's now up to Azmi to implement the virtual case file.

Mueller says Trilogy suffered as the search for John's replacement dragged. "I went on a nationwide search that took eight to 12 months," he said. "There was a gap of leadership at the CIO position. That hurt us."

Help Wanted: Chief Architect for Business and Technology Modernization, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Chief Architect for Business and Technology Modernization serves as the Department's technical expert on modernizing business processes and systems. (This ad ends 2,416 words later.)

Of those 2,416 words describing the job and desired leadership characteristics and personality traits, HUD left out political skills. Alan Balutis, former Department of Commerce CIO and president of government strategies at research firm Input, says "there has been a tendency to make the CIO position more political."

When Balutis left for the private sector in 1999, he focused primarily on technology management. Today, the CIO position is critical to reinventing agencies. "The CIO needs a seat at the policy table and needs the same access," Balutis points out. "If he or she is an outsider politically, will the access be there?"

Simply put, it helps if the CIO has access to policy makers when they make decisions affecting information systems. And the best way to be in that club is to be appointed by President Bush.

Marshall, who was appointed by Bush as CIO of USAID in 2001 and left for CGI-AMS in December 2004, says that until recently, chief information officers were "career" executives who would keep projects going as administrations changed. Now there are two types of technology executives—career managers focused on daily operations, and CIOs who are political appointees.

For instance, Marshall had regular access to Andrew Natsios, administrator for USAID, to figure out how technology fits into specific Bush initiatives abroad.

One key part of meeting those initiatives was a financial management and purchasing system. When Marshall arrived at USAID, the agency had spent $100 million on a homegrown financial management and acquisition system plagued by buggy code and missed deadlines. USAID, which designed the system to link 70 to 80 of its missions worldwide, scrapped the homegrown system to use packaged software from AMS to cut costs and speed up implementation.

Marshall isn't sure if being a political appointee helped the project, but all those meetings with Natsios meant deputies responsible for the project day-to-day didn't have to do it. When CIOs leave, a deputy often fills the void on an interim basis. "If you're an operational guy and you have to interface with policy people, you get stretched," he says.

Help Wanted: Associate Chief Information Officer for Cyber Security, Department of the Treasury. The incumbent is the head of U.S. Treasury Cyber Security Program and is fully responsible for accomplishing the cyber security program objectives.

And then there's the budget process where agencies tell contractors to slow their pace to save money as Congress and the White House bicker for dollars.

At the Commerce Department, Balutis could shift up to 5% of his budget in and out of projects. If the funds in question exceeded that 5% mark, Balutis had to ask a Senate appropriations committee for more money. And if all else failed, a new budget could be requested with additional legislation.

During Balutis' tenure, funding for the 2000 census was in flux. Balutis had to build systems to gather population data and finish two years early for testing. Planning started in 1995, but Congress usually isn't interested in funding something five years away.

"It's hard to run multiyear projects when money is doled out year to year," Balutis explains. "The biggest difficulty is that you do a plan and then all of a sudden you're $50 million short."

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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