Congress should shore up the role of the Federal chief information officer (CIO) and consider enshrining the position into law to help improve the government’s often troubled management of IT, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says in a new report.

Though the Federal CIO’s job responsibilities correspond in many ways with agency and private sector CIOs, the position’s lack of a legal basis means “there is uncertainty regarding how much authority the Federal CIO position has, or will have in the future, to fulfill the IT management responsibilities commonly expected of a CIO,” GAO says in the report to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“By establishing the Federal CIO in law and addressing such responsibilities, the authorities of the position can be clarified and will be consistent over time and across administrations,” the report says. The Federal CIO position dates to 2009 and was only administratively designated by the president “to direct and oversee government-wide IT in several key management areas,” it explains.

The report, “Chief Information Officers: Private Sector Practices Can Inform Government Roles,” also advocates that Federal agency CIOs emulate certain “private sector practices.” To accomplish that, the report recommends that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ensure that increased emphasis be placed on “shared collaboration between agency CIOs and other senior executives to accomplish agency-wide and government-wide goals.”

The report originated from a congressional directive that GAO review the alignment of responsibilities among Federal agency CIOs, their private sector counterparts, and the overall Federal CIO, located in OMB.

“Information systems are critical to the health, economy, and security of the nation,” GAO wrote in a Sept. 15 letter to the chairs and ranking members of the oversight committee and its subcommittee on government operations. “Although the government makes substantial annual investments, it faces longstanding problems in its management of IT.”

To conducts its research, GAO surveyed 71 private sector CIOs or CIO equivalents and compared their job responsibilities to those of the Federal CIO and agency CIOs.

The survey showed that although the Federal CIO has similar job responsibilities to agency and private sector CIOs, “the Federal CIO position is not established in law … as such, its responsibilities are often more limited in key CIO management areas than those of the other types of CIOs.”

For example, the report said, the Federal CIO is not responsible for ensuring that cybersecurity duties are carried out, as agency and private sector CIOs are.

Establishing the Federal CIO position in law, the report concluded, will strengthen the position and improve the government’s management of its massive portfolio of IT investments, which amount to about $111 billion in fiscal year 2022.

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Jerry Markon