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Wanted: CIO for the United States

Industry watcher Payton Smith says the departure of Mark Forman as the administrator for e-government leaves a huge void in the federal government.

4 min read
When the departure of Mark Forman was announced last month, a gasp could be heard from Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley.

Forman was the associate director of information technology and e-government at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. His shoes will not be easy to fill, and anyone who believes otherwise has little understanding or appreciation for the difficulty of making the government embrace change.

Forman leaves behind a strong set of processes and initiatives that will now have to be driven without his leadership and guidance. And even though he held this newly created position for just more than two years, his presence and focus were the two reasons why the e-government program reached a pinnacle of short-term success.

The long-term success of those initiatives will require an individual who can match or exceed Forman, with strong leadership to manage the still relatively new processes and to maintain good working relationships with the often diametrically opposed federal chief information officers and the U.S. Congress.

Whoever is next in line has a constituency that is much larger than the IT community. Every taxpayer has a stake in this job position. That's because the ability of the federal government to dramatically improve the cost-effectiveness of its service delivery is a benefit for all taxpayers. And since much of this improvement will depend on cutting-edge technology solutions, the IT community clearly stands to benefit from strong leadership in this area.

Mark Forman's role was equivalent to CIO for the world's largest single enterprise--the U.S. federal government. Forman implemented sweeping changes in the government's IT investment strategy.

As a result, the OMB achieved an unprecedented ability to scrutinize the IT budgeting process and, consequently, to influence the fortunes of thousands of companies that contract with the federal government for the provision of IT products and services.

Forman used the agency's control over the budgeting process to put teeth into President Bush's management agenda, which among other things calls for a focus on electronic government, improved financial management and competitive sourcing--all high-impact areas for the IT community. Forman also focused agency attention on information security by flatly stating: Any agency that cannot demonstrate adequate security for an IT project will not be funded.

Forman's most visible efforts during his tenure with the federal government are associated with the "Quicksilver" initiatives, a collection of 24 e-government projects specifically selected to demonstrate high-payoff IT solutions that cut across agencies' boundaries and provide services directly to customers of the federal government---be they individuals, businesses or other constituents. The idea of projects that cut across agencies' boundaries was the truly novel component of the Quicksilver initiatives. The government had not attempted anything on the scope of these initiatives.

Every taxpayer has a stake in this job position.
The federal government is not an environment known for eagerly embracing change, so naturally, federal agencies met Forman's initiatives, which concern both IT management and e-government, with various levels of reluctance, hostility and confusion. Reluctance, because the changes Forman was proposing could not be realized without agencies' significant effort. Hostility, because individuals objected to the OMB's increased level of budgetary scrutiny. And confusion, because in many cases, agencies simply didn't understand or have experience with the types of requirements Forman demanded.

That his initiatives have been largely successful in the face of these obstacles is a credit to Forman's clarity of vision, emphasis on process and persuasive personality.

Forman entered the federal government with a relatively simple idea: It should be citizen-centered and results-oriented. Much of the framework for Forman's initiatives already existed. All that was missing from the equation was someone who could say: "This is achievable, and here's how we are going to accomplish it."

A clear vision isn't worth anything without the ability to achieve it, and Forman was able to make progress on his vision by establishing new processes for the request and approval of new IT investments. Forman required business cases from federal agencies for every IT project, specifying the costs, schedule, anticipated benefits and metrics for evaluating the performance of the project. Business cases also formed the basis for selecting the 24 Quicksilver initiatives. These business cases, which were at first a major source of the confusion mentioned above, have become the new standard for evaluating the federal government's IT budget requests--and hence IT spending.

Finally, Forman complemented his vision and focus on process with his unique personality and sheer force of will. He was able to achieve buy-in for his initiatives both from the agencies themselves--particularly the agency CIOs--and from Congress, which is ultimately responsible for authorizing and appropriating any budget requests that come from the OMB. Despite a certain amount of back-and-forth regarding e-government appropriations, Congress gave Forman a notable vote of confidence with the passage of the Electronic Government Act of 2002.

Maybe the help-wanted posting for Forman's replacement should read: "Associate director of information technology and e-government. Must be business-minded and fully understand the federal bureaucracy. Must promote good-working relationships with federal CIOs and Congress. Must have clarity of vision, focus on process and indomitable will. Willingness to sacrifice income potential for greater public good a plus."

Anyone who has the guts to answer that ad just might be up to the test.