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Should the United States Have a Chief Knowledge Management Officer?

Originally published December 13, 2011

Early in the Obama Administration, the United States acquired both a Chief Information Officer (CIO) and a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). These were official positions that had never existed in the federal government – at least not with that official name and functionality – and the results in general have been quite positive.

Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the United States, is a Johns Hopkins- and Harvard-trained professional who was serving as Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia when President Obama tapped him for the CTO position. In general he gets very good grades for bringing attention to the highest levels the role of technology in addressing the nation’s priorities. With respect to his job, the White House website quotes him as saying, "Our mission is to assist the President in harnessing the power and potential of technology, data and innovation to transform the Nation's economy and improve the lives of everyday Americans."

Lofty goals indeed, but what exactly does that mean? If you look into Chopra’s speeches, blog posts and presentations, you realize that he has been working precisely on the administration’s hot buttons: health care, innovation and job creation. As an assistant to the President, furthermore, he has a certain amount of power and access that many of his colleagues do not.

Vivek Kundra was the first federal CIO of the United States. (The position, mandated by the E-Government Act of 2002, had been filled by Karen Evans but she never used the title officially.) A University of Maryland alumnus, Vivek shined while serving as the CTO for the District of Columbia, where he strongly pushed open source, social media and cloud computing. He participated as an advisor on the Obama transition team, which was the prelude to his official appointment to the CIO role. While Kundra recently left the position to take a Harvard fellowship and has been replaced by Steve VanRoekel, it was Kundra who defined the position to a large degree.

While not without some detractors, Kundra gets good grades from the industry at large, and they are well deserved. He focused on IT project accountability via the IT dashboard, “democratizing” data through www.data.gov, prioritizing cloud computing and postulating an ambitious federal IT reform through a 25-point program that we discussed in a recent article.

So now that we have a federal CTO and CIO, should the United States also have a federal Chief Knowledge Management Officer (CKO)?

The September 2011 issue of KMWorld featured a thought-provoking article by David Raths on federal knowledge management (KM). The piece is based on a roadmap for federal knowledge management proposed by the Federal Knowledge Management Initiative (FKMI), which is a subgroup of the federal KM Working Group (KMWG).  KMWG was formed in 2000 and charged with moving the ball forward on the KM discipline at the federal level. This initiative consists of seven points, but the most interesting one is the potential creation of a federal CKO position.

I have long suggested that we are in need of a Clinger-Cohen Act for knowledge management. When Congress got tired of the huge amount of waste and abuse that had characterized so many federal IT projects in the 1970s and ‘80s, it passed the Information Technology Management Reform Act in 1996, widely known as the Clinger-Cohen Act because of its principal Congressional sponsors. To this day, this statute provides the main framework for federal IT operations and mandates a focus on capital planning and investment, risk management, enterprise architecture and the need for agencies to have CIOs reporting to their Secretaries.

As we realize that computers have to do more than just transmit and store bits and bytes, there has been a desire to see a movement from information resource management to knowledge management. And this may eventually require Congress to step in and make it happen.

Let’s come back to the FKMI roadmap and its seven points, which were articulated by Neil Olonoff, a much experienced KM practitioner and co-chair of the federal KMWG:

  1. Create a Federal Knowledge Management Center to serve as a resource for the federal government in KM.
  2. Establish a Federal CKO position.
  3. Develop a KM Governance plan to include standards, policies and practices for the whole government.
  4. Create an awareness campaign and Web presence for federal KM to explain the requirement and disseminate relevant content.
  5. Promote a knowledge sharing culture for federal workers that prioritizes “need to share” rather than “need to know.” Culture change is  important but also difficult and slow to effect.
  6. Provide KM skills training for federal workers since they will need the education to do their jobs and move to a knowledge-sharing mode.
  7. Meet the challenges of the retirement “age wave” or capture the tacit knowledge from the large numbers of federal employees that are eligible to retire in the coming years. Unless this can be done, the federal workforce will be substantially gutted by the loss of knowledge when employees retire.

So what would a federal CKO do? Well it seems that the FKMI initiative gives him/her enough work for the duration.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need a CKO for the United States. Let’s see how long it takes before we get one.


  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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