Role of Chief Information Officer Sparks Pentagon Turf Battle

By Sandra I. Erwin

A bureaucratic battle is brewing at the Defense Department over the role and authority of the Pentagon’s chief information officer. Outside critics, including former Pentagon officials and government contractors, say the CIO lacks sufficient clout in the building and its stature should be elevated.

A powerful faction within the Defense Department, meanwhile, wants to fold the CIO’s office into the procurement shop, under Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall. The CIO currently reports to the deputy defense secretary but, according to insiders, it has little visibility and influence in information-technology policy or procurement decisions.

But Congress ultimately could have the final say on this issue. The Senate has signed off on legislation that would promote the CIO to undersecretary of defense for management, which would give the incumbent equal standing to Kendall and would require Senate confirmation. That proposal, included in the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, has not yet been endorsed by the House. Pentagon officials oppose this move, and have argued that it would create additional bureaucratic bloat when budgets are shrinking and leaner organizations are in order.

Pentagon contractors, for their part, have a huge stake in the outcome of this bureaucratic shuffle as it could shape how the Defense Department manages its $38 billion a year information-technology budget.

Three former Pentagon CIOs and two retired generals recently weighed in on the issue. They sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees in support of the Senate NDAA language. “We applaud this initiative and believe it is important to the department and the nation that this provision become law,” said the July 29 letter, signed by former CIOs Duane P. Andrews, John G. Grimes, Arthur L. Money; and retired Air Force Lt. Gen Albert J. Edmonds and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro.

“The CIO position has been diminished” in recent years, the letter said, at a time when information systems play a central role in the Defense Department. Issues that relate to IT today include competition over frequency spectrum, multiple network designs and standards, interoperability among U.S. Forces and between allies, outdated encryption, undisciplined acquisition processes and cyber intrusions, noted the letter. "These challenges need to be addressed by a dedicated, focused office with the appropriate authority and organizational stature to effect change across the department."

In an interview, Punaro insisted that this matter is far more important than it seems because of the significance that information technology now has in military operations and across all Defense Department functions. As an industry consultant, Punaro said he worries that if the CIO is folded into the acquisition office, it would become even less influential than it is today.

Punaro said he started working on this issue more than a year ago, before it become a heated topic of debate within the building. An ongoing review of the Pentagon’s bureaucratic structure, led by former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, will be looking at the CIO role, said Punaro.

The CIO’s office declined to comment. “Given that the department's reorganization review is still ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment on pre-decisional matters,” said a spokesman for Defense Department CIO Teri Takai.

The Senate language has stirred controversy in the building as it would combine Takai’s job with that of Elizabeth McGrath —who is deputy chief management officer — and make it a higher level post.

Punaro lamented that the CIO’s office has been in an organizational “no man’s land” since 2010, when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates eliminated the position of assistant secretary for networks integration and information (ASD NII) as part of a broader effort to make the Pentagon more efficient. The axing of the ASD NII position diminished the authority of the CIO, said Punaro. The ASD NII also served as CIO and was a Senate-confirmed post. The CIO’s position was only slightly improved by having a combat support organization, the Defense Systems Information Agency, reporting to it directly.

Moving the CIO under AT&L would be a “huge mistake,” said Punaro. The acquisition shop can “barely keep up with its current responsibilities, let alone take more,” he said. The Senate’s proposal might not be ideal, but is “preferable to where the CIO is today, and certainly far preferable to putting it back in AT&L.”

The CIO is now an organization that is “looking for a home,” said Punaro. “It is not at the table with the secretary of defense, and rarely at the table with the deputy secretary.” It is a fact of life that the Defense Department is organized around pecking orders, and burying the CIO under AT&L would further dilute the limited power it has today, said Punaro.

Industry representatives — who declined to speak on the record because they do no want to openly criticize their Pentagon customers — said that folding the CIO under AT&L would go against the trend in the federal government, which is to make CIOs more independent and to have a voice in policy decisions.

“The identity, independence and authority of the CIO is now in a diminished state,” said an industry white paper. “Having the CIO as a directly accountable position under the secretary of defense should be a central organizational principle for the department.”

The debate will continue this fall as the House and Senate take up the 2014 NDAA. The Senate Armed Services Committee in June voted 23-3 for its version of the bill. The House passed a defense authorization act in June that seeks an overhaul in the way the federal government manages information-technology programs.

Topics: C4ISR, Cyber, Defense Department, DOD Leadership, Infotech

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