Providing Stability in Field of Constant Change

Providing Stability in Field of Constant Change

John B. Owens II, CIO, USPTO

John B. Owens II, CIO, USPTO

During my nine year tenure as the CIO at the United States Patent and Trademark Office almost everyone above me has been replaced an average of every two years. That makes carrying out long term programs such as an IT modernization much more difficult. As CIOs, we must constantly be prepared to describe and defend what we do to the next group of people in charge. With any new change in leadership, it’s important to establish the role of the CIO and answer many of their questions that they just don’t have time to ask.

What Is A CIO?

Most senior executives don’t really know what a CIO does. My wife introduces me as the “Chief Geek” of the Patent and Trademark Office. Of course, in my case, I’d like to believe that this is a simple but true description. What most senior agency executives don’t realize is that the position and responsibilities are described in law: The Clinger-Cohen Act and Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) are the two key pieces of legislation.

It falls on me and my office to help educate senior leadership not only on what is required of me in my role, but where they fit in as part of the governance process, including:

• Capital investment management to better manage agency-wide IT spend;
• System Development Risk Management; and
• Program Management and quantifiable measures improvements to agency delivery and performance

Beyond these core responsibilities the CIO is frequently also the Chief IT Security Officer, Chief Privacy Officer, Chief Records Official, and Chief Dissemination Official for information in print and electronically. It’s imperative to tie all of these responsibilities to metrics linked to the business in ways that are meaningful to them. In other words, it’s vital for them to understand what impact a successful, failed or even the lack of IT investment will have on their own bottom line, performance measures or productivity.

Do I Need A CIO?

This is a hotly debated topic throughout academia, industry and government. Despite the legal requirements, in my mind the answer is a simple ‘yes’. For businesses or agencies that are heavily involved in creating custom software applications tied to meeting daily operations, then the more technically focused a CIO needs to be and can’t be delegated to a non-IT professional. But that dictates that the CIO must also be able to relate to the business in order to drive proper management of IT spending in support of the agency strategic initiatives. Being able to bridge the gap between the technologies and the business goals and agency Strategic Plan while demonstrating proper stewardship of the funding is critical for today’s CIO and will only become increasing more important in the current federal spending environment.

"My wife introduces me as the “Chief Geek” of the Patent and Trademark Office"

In order to demonstrate sound stewardship, a CIO needs to establish meaningful metrics that support the business:

• IT Modernization—Year over year delivery of key supporting systems, retirement of systems
• Security—what our security profile looks like, how often we catch intrusions, POA&M reduction management
• System stability and availability improvements
• Budget spend vs delivery, not just through Earned Value Management but by demonstrating improvements in quality and customer satisfaction

Preparing For The Inevitable

With over 85 billion dollars being spent on IT in the federal government that level of spending comes with both successes and failures. Across the federal government, this leads to a significant amount of scrutiny and oversight. For many new senior agency executives, this kind of exposure can be disconcerting.

Part of the CIOs role is to help senior executives understand that this comes with the territory and to provide the stability and institutional knowledge to support and respond effectively to the inquiries. Audits, investigations, and external oversight come in many forms (IGs, GAO, OMB, House and Senate committees) and while inevitable and uncomfortable they are part of the checks and balances in government and should be welcomed in any organization the has embraced and institutionalized continuous process improvement.

It is incumbent on the CIO to ensure the proper leadership and transparency to ensure full disclosure and then have the will to enact immediate action plans to address the findings and recommendations. These skills will go a long way to help new senior executives build comfort and confidence is the oversight process.

Why Bother?

It seems like many federal CIOs don’t last longer than 18 to 24 months so why bother with this? The real answer is that making lasting change in the slow moving federal space take time and can’t be done in a quick in and out. Lasting change can’t occur with a two or five year plan, but takes a long view going out seven or more years. It means having the vision for the long plan and the perseverance to stick it through, despite the occasional failures, constant leadership changes and never ending oversight and second guessing.

I never thought leaving a 15 year career in industry for an executive position in the government was going to result in working harder than ever before. But I realized that the only way to have a lasting impact is to stick with the long game, enough to see it finished and leave a meaningful impact at a federal agency. The fact that this work directly protects the nation’s intellectual property and builds our economy is reason enough to stick it out and see it through for me.

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