The Highway's Jammed With Broken Heroes on A Last Chance Power Drive

Jonathan Alboum, CIO, The United States Department of Agriculture
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Jonathan Alboum, CIO, The United States Department of Agriculture

Jonathan Alboum, CIO, The United States Department of Agriculture

"The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.”– Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”

Federal CIOs would do well to keep this memorable Springsteen line in mind. Those that attempt to do it alone and be heroes may find out too late that they’ve been on a “last chance power drive” of their own making. It’s the strategy of many a broken IT hero.

Today, federal CIOs must be team-builders on an enterprise level. Otherwise, they simply will not be effective as leaders. At this point, we’re well aware that IT shouldn’t be perceived as a back-office function. The key challenge is culture change. The business must come to see the transformative power of the CIO as a business partner. To get there, IT must first be built into a community of people who understand their changing roles in energizing agency missions.

Recent legislation like the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) represents the best opportunity in recent memory to create better insight into Federal IT portfolios. I think this is particularly true for medium and large agencies with multiple components. If executed correctly, FITARA will make CIOs and their teams more strategic and produce better outcomes. However, CIOs must create an environment that leverages the interdependent nature of what can seem like distinct component organizations. And, they must demonstrate the benefits of working together. This requires an unrelenting campaign to foster team-building and a common identity across the enterprise IT community. If we want to avoid the fate of all those “broken heroes,” the first step is realizing that we’re in IT together.

The CIO of a large federated organization must work to break down barriers between headquarters and component agency IT employees in order to build trust. Taking a top-down approach to implementing enterprise-level activities across component agencies does not inspire confidence or collaboration. As a former component-level CIO, I understand that agencies are closer to the products and services we deliver to the public and they know the needs and opportunities of their mission best. In order to support the success of each agency and the organization at large, we must streamline layers of bureaucracy and encourage collaboration across the enterprise.

  Today, federal CIOs must be team-builders on an enterprise level. Otherwise, they simply will not be effective as leaders 

The power of building a larger identity and the benefits it provides to the public cannot be overstated. The appeal of public service is one of the key competitive advantages that Federal IT organizations have to recruit and retain top talent. It’s true in some cases that the IT employees who keep systems running are some of the most likely to miss the important connection between the work they do and the agency mission. The best way to combat this and strengthen their connection to the larger mission is to give your IT employees the opportunity to get direct exposure to customers in the field. This builds a common identity and shows them the tremendous impact of our work.

Trust with component agencies can be built when headquarters employees responsible for oversight activities understand that they are part of a larger project team. For example, a component agency might want to adopt a new technology that will transform their business. If the technology does not align with established approaches, the Department CIO may need to provide clear support to the headquarters staff to ease the process of integrating the new technology. Opportunities like this engender goodwill and spur innovation at all levels.

CIOs should enable headquarters and component IT executives to collaboratively manage the identification and implementation of enterprise initiatives. A simple process with clear criteria is needed to determine when a project or initiative is a candidate for enterprise coordination and activity. To leverage the full collective power of an agency, business owners of enterprise initiatives will not necessarily sit at the enterprise level. A component agency that has developed a center of excellence in a particular technology, as in the example above, might best be suited to take the lead.

Finally, it’s important to emphasize that the authority of component CIOs does not conflict with the authority of the Department CIO. It’s quite the contrary. Springsteen’s classic “Born to Run” ends with the optimistic idea that someday, “We’re going to get to that place where we really wanna go and walk in the sun.” For a CIO, that place is a seat at the leadership table. In a large federal agency, the best action a Department CIO can take to achieve the intent of FITARA is to help component CIOs elevate their own leadership standing and the status of IT in their respective organizations.

Greater authority for component agency CIOs gives them increased awareness of how IT is used across their organization. Transparency then increases across the enterprise. It also positions them to become true business partners and earn their spot in the sun. From there, these CIOs can energize their organizations to finally take full advantage of the transformative value of information and technology. That’s the place the public demands we all go.

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