A White House memo giving chief information officers at federal agencies greater responsibilities to reduce wasteful technology spending comes up short in giving CIOs the added authority many believe they need to make a significant impact, say current and former government IT officials.

The memo, issued by Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew on Aug. 8, notified U.S. department and agency chiefs that the CIOs working for them have been tasked with greater roles and responsibilities by OMB, as well as greater accountability, in controlling technology spending.

But by not also holding agency heads accountable, OMB has given CIOs a mandate that will be hard to fully carry out, former officials insist.

“Raising the power of the CIO is a good thing, but not sufficient to get results,” said Mark Forman, who served as the first administrator in the Office of E-Government and IT at OMB during the George W. Bush Administration and is co-founder of Government Transaction Services.

“The administration has to hold all players accountable for results, and that includes secretaries and deputy secretaries,” he said.

Despite efforts to give information technology leaders greater authority over the past 15 years–most notably with Congress enacting the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996–many agency CIOs continue to find themselves functioning as technology architects and risk managers without the power to change program decisions that often lead to wasteful IT spending practices.

“CIOs are not at the level in government agencies where they have sufficient authority to really deliver on those OMB directives” issued this month, said Brand Niemann, former senior enterprise architect for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and now director of Semantic Community.

Not all agency IT executives agree.

“We’re hopeful” that the OMB memo to agency heads will put a much brighter spotlight on the performance of IT projects and as a result, bring greater discipline to managing IT projects, said an information security project manager within the Department of Homeland security who agreed to comment so long as he wasn’t identified.

Nevertheless, even if CIOs are granted greater practical authority within agencies, too many political and funding incentives remain in place to deter most agencies from developing one of the biggest causes of wasteful IT spending: duplicative technology initiatives across government, according to current and past government IT executives.

“Given the magnitude of problems–poor project performance, cyber security, and duplicative IT investment–the real work needs to be done by OMB,” argued Forman.

“Instead, they are pushing another wet noodle down the road and will no doubt make big claims that GAO will not be able to document any real savings,” Forman said.

“The reality is that redundant government programs are driving over investment and increased complexity of the federal IT architecture, which drives excessive cost and complicates cyber security,” he said.

As Forman sees it, the memo issued by the White House Office provides no new roles and “substantially less accountability than required of agency heads” and of CIOs in the Clinger-Cohen Act and subsequent OMB guidance.

The Clinger-Cohen Act requires each agency head to establish clear accountability for IT management activities by appointing an agency CIO with the visibility and management responsibilities needed to control system development risks; better manage technology spending; and succeed in achieving real, measurable improvements in agency performance. It was intended to reform and improve the way federal agencies acquire and manage IT resources and to address many of the run-away IT projects that still occur in agencies today.

From the White House’s perspective, the new responsibilities are aimed at shifting the focus of CIOs “away from just policy making and infrastructure maintenance, to encompass true portfolio management for all IT,” said OMB Director Lew.

Lew said the expansion of CIOs duties are in addition to their statutory responsibilities through the Clinger-Cohen Act and related laws, and are intended to bring greater discipline and focus in four areas in which “agency CIOs shall have a lead role”:

Governance: CIOs must drive the investment review process for IT investments and have responsibility over the entire IT portfolio for an agency, working with chief financial and chief acquisition officers to ensure IT portfolio analysis is an integral part of the yearly budget process for an agency.

Commodity IT: Agency CIOs must focus on eliminating duplication and rationalize their agency’s IT investments in IT infrastructure (data centers, networks, desktop computers and mobile devices); enterprise IT systems (e-mail, collaboration tools, identity and access management, security, and web infrastructure); and business systems (finance, human resources, and other administrative functions).

Program Management. Agency CIOs shall improve the overall management of large federal IT projects by identifying, recruiting, hiring, training and reviewing top IT program management talent. CIOs will be held accountable for the performance of IT program managers based on their governance process and the IT Dashboard.

Information Security: CIOs, or senior agency officials reporting to the CIO, shall have the authority and primary responsibility to implement an agency-wide information security program. They will also be responsible for providing information security for both the information collected and maintained by, or on behalf of the agency, and for the information systems that support the operations.

But the added responsibilities are unlikely to curb one of the underlying causes of wasteful spending practices: the tendency of agencies to insist on maintaining their own IT systems, such as financial management systems, to support their missions and programs, even though shared systems across government would lead to more dramatic savings to taxpayers.

And where the memo does give federal CIOs more responsibility to address delays and overspending on agency projects, many CIOs continue to lack the practical authority to alter acquisition rules that lead to or compound delays in technology development projects.

“If the new federal CIO (Steven VanRoekel) wants to achieve the same level of IT productivity in government as exists in private industry, a goal stated by his predecessor, Vivek Kundra, then government CIOs have to be able to operate like private industry CIOs where they are held accountable for the business bottom line,” said Niemann.

“Ask government CIO’s what business bottom line are they responsible for other than avoiding IT failures and cost overruns. And usually that doesn’t seem to cost them their jobs. On the other hand if they were required to put their entire IT infrastructure in the cloud within the next year or else, then we would see real accountability and cost savings and dramatic culture change,” he said.