Commentary: The Proliferation of Chiefs

When I came to Washington years ago on what was to be a one-year fellowship, the senior administrative management position in government departments and agencies was typically an Assistant Secretary for Administration (AS/A) or perhaps an Assistant Secretary for Management (AS/M). In the majority of cases, those positions and their deputies were long-time careerists, recognizing that financial management, management reform, recruitment  and sustaining a high-quality workforce required large investments and considerable lead-times to be successful. Under these assistant secretaries were all the arrows that one needed in a management quiver to direct an agency’s programs — budget, financial management, personnel, procurement, and the like.

Then, beginning in the 1990’s and continuing for a decade or so afterwards, came a push for Chiefs — first Financial Officers, then Information Officers (CIO’s), and later Acquisition Officers and Human Capitol Officers. The majority of these new positions were established as either Presidential appointee, Senate confirmed jobs or non-career SES ones.  And so they were filled with appointees with an average life span in government of 18-24 months.  Difficulties developed in coordinating the works of the diverse chieftains.  In several cases, this has led departments to establish Under Secretaries for Management to oversee and integrate these multiple chiefs.

Ironically, last year’s enactment of the Federal Information Technology and Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which was designed to strengthen and clarify the authority of the CIO, has given birth to a new proliferation of chiefs — especially in the information technology arena. To a certain extent, I find these new roles puzzling. Let’s review them:

Chief Data Officer (CDO): We know government agencies generate lots of data. The Department of Commerce, the smallest cabinet-level agency in terms of budget, generates 24 terabytes of data each day. Of that vast array of data, the department estimates that it makes use of less than 4 TBs.  The challenge for the CDO is to make better use of this rich array of data perhaps through partnership with the private sector. But once data is combined and once it is put in a broader context it comes under the purview of a …

Chief Information Officer: Created in 1996 under the Information Technology Management Reform Act (also known as the Clinger-Cohen Act), the CIO was created to deal with two major problems — paying today’s prices for yesterday’s technologies, and IT projects that were over budget, behind schedule, and not  delivering the promised functionality. But there are other key concerns, so one also needs a …

Chief Technology Officer (CTO): This may be one of the more muddled roles, since it has led Capitol Hill to draft legislation that would define the CTO’s role. Over the span of this Administration, the responsibility has shifted from defining how technology can transform the delivery of government services, such as health care, to serving as a SWAT team to salvage what many have characterized as the “botched roll-out” of the Affordable Care Act, to recruiting IT talent from Silicon Valley to come to D.C. to serve in government, to STEM, to women in technology. Regardless, one still needs a ….

Chief Information Security Officer (CISO):  The CISO is needed to focus on information security. Along with a security chief, one needs a …

Chief Privacy Officer (CPO): The CPO is needed to ensure an individual’s personal data isn’t revealed. But once information is stored and aggregated, perhaps one needs a …

Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO): The CKO’s job is to understand what the agency knows. And who will use the data, the information, and the knowledge, outside the agencies, outside the government? For that, we need to turn to the …

Chief Customer Officer. And so on.

I know I haven’t covered every new chieftain (e.g., the Chief Digitization Officer). But I want to raise the issue of the proliferation of chiefs across the IT field, how they are defined and coordinated, and whether their creation undermines the efforts to strengthen the potential of using information technology to transform government and the way the government delivers services to our citizens.

At the very point when we seemed close to nailing down the role and responsibility of a CIO in the Federal space, a thousand new IT flowers have bloomed. But why?

altAlan P. Balutis (@AlanBalutis) is a Senior Director and Distinguished Fellow at Cisco Systems U.S. Public Sector.


Alan P. Balutis
About Alan P. Balutis
Alan Balutis has held senior roles in academia, the Federal government, and both the private and non-profit sectors. He has written extensively about government and management reform in both academic and trade publications. He recently left Cisco Systems. where he headed their Public Sector Strategy and Consulting practice.