CIO Insights: The Rapidly Evolving Public Sector CIO

The role of the public sector CIO goes mainstream in more ways than one.

Moor's Law predicts the doubling of computer processing power approximately every 18 months. However, there is no similar law to account for the rise in the influence and authority of the rapidly evolving public sector CIO.

The growing importance of this position is reflected in the fact that CIOs have been moving up in the political world. In fact, a number of them are now at cabinet level and report directly to the most senior politicians in their jurisdiction.

So, how much has the CIO role changed during the last decade? What trends are having the most impact on this position? And how will CIOs need to continue evolving in order to ensure themselves a promising future in government?

To get answers to these critical questions, State Tech spoke with four state and city IT executives. Dianah Neff of Philadelphia, Terry Savage of the state of Nevada, Teri Takai of the state of Michigan and Toni Cramer of Bellevue, Wash., shared their thoughts, their experiences and their hopes for the future of the public sector CIO.

Political Shift

“In my four years here, I’ve seen IT change from being a budgeted line item to becoming a strategic service and direction-setter within government,” says Dianah Neff, CIO for the city of Philadelphia since 2001. “As technology has become more pervasive and crucial to the fabric of government, the CIO has gained a much more important and strategic role.”

It wasn’t always that way. Neff has been working in the public sector since 1986, when she took a job as IT director for the city of Palo Alto, Calif. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, she held the title of IT director. In 1997, Neff was given the title of CIO. Her current political importance is reflected in the fact that Neff’s job is a cabinet-level position that reports directly to Philadelphia’s mayor, John Street.

In April, Neff’s department hit the headlines with the announcement of a $15-million “Wireless Philadelphia” project. This ambitious plan aims to make the city’s entire 135-square-mile area the largest Internet hot spot in the United States.

The Right Model

There are a number of reasons behind the drive to expand and elevate the CIO’s role. For one thing, the position has become more visible to the public and the rest of government. For another, escalating public sector IT budgets have resulted in calls for greater accountability and transparency.

Terry Savage, CIO of Nevada, has been working directly for the state governor since 2000. He believes other jurisdictions should use this model for the CIO position.

“When technology becomes an integral part of pretty much every department in the state, people naturally get more interested in money, policy and responsibility,” Savage says. “A significant fraction of CIOs still report to their state’s equivalent of the department of administration, but the CIO should report to the governor because we need visibility for IT at the highest level.” He adds that proximity to the governor’s office can also help resolve interdepartmental issues more quickly.

“Virtually everything in my job has three components: a technical component, an economic component and a political component,” Savage says. “The technical part is always easiest.” He has seen the role of the CIO “move away from hands-on technical problem solving” toward managing “budget, politics and policy.”

The Nevada CIO approves of the current trend of public sector CIOs gaining responsibility for both policy and operations. “When CIOs just do policy, they get detached from operations and end up passing unworkable policies,” he cautions.

Savage chairs Nevada’s communications steering committee, which has been charged with developing a statewide radio communications interoperability plan under AB441, the 2003 bill that established the Nevada Homeland Security Commission. He brought together experts from across the state to develop the plan and will submit a first draft in October.

“I herd the cats and make sure that people don’t yell at each other too much,” Savage explains. “As a state CIO, you need to be effective at bringing consensus out of chaos.”

Business Transitions

The shifts in political responsibility and accountability have been enormous, but the public sector CIO is also becoming more business oriented. Teri Takai, CIO and director of the Michigan Department of Information Technology since 2003, has noticed a marked shift toward CIOs who have a highly developed business sense.

“Five to 10 years ago, most of us in the IT business saw ourselves more as technologists than as businesspeople,” Takai recalls. “We tended to come up with technology solutions [that were] looking for a problem. Now, agencies have to define their business problems and what they want from the technology solution before projects can be approved. That was unheard of five to 10 years ago.”

Takai believes that, in the past, CIOs were “rightfully” accused of not adequately understanding business processes. But that is changing.

For example, Takai recently put her business sense to good use by striking a deal with a software vendor. Her department provided the intellectual capital to enable the software modifications it needed in exchange for receiving all future upgrades to the software for free.

“A large part of the CIO’s job is building relationships and understanding what people need from IT and state government,” Takai explains. “The CIO has to be able to establish strong relationships with the IT supplier community, senior-level directors and deputy directors in the agencies, the governor's office and the legislature. Now we’re seeing CIOs who can go head-to-head with business entities and who actually understand how business works, in business terms.”

Toni Cramer, CIO for the city of Bellevue, Wash., also has noticed a shift toward business-savvy CIOs. “The most dramatic shift I have seen is the recognition, on the business side, of how much value technology can add in terms of service delivery strategies and productivity gains,” says Cramer, who has worked in the public sector for more than 21 years, five as a CIO. “With that, the importance of the partnerships between technologists and business strategists has emerged.”

Five years ago, Cramer, who reports to the Bellevue city manager, was up to her eyeballs in year-2000 issues, and her role was predominantly focused on keeping the technology running. Since then, she has observed a dramatic shift toward business strategies, especially strategies focused on leveraging existing technology to achieve service delivery models.

Technological Adaptations

CIOs continually look for ways to improve the technology services they provide to government offices and citizens.

“In our local communities, we are a monopoly inasmuch as [citizens] have to deal with government,” says Philadelphia’s Neff. “But we have a long way to go in the customer service arena, and we need to move toward greater personalization, to reach out to the public better and to make systems more accessible.”

In Neff’s department, this is resulting in a trend away from in-house development—a dramatic change from the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Almost all our development was done inside back then,” Neff explains. “But the outsourcing trend will continue to grow, with us using more off-the-shelf applications and focusing more on project management and core skills and services.”

Given the rate of change and the number of new technologies coming into the marketplace, integration has become a serious challenge for most CIOs.

“In my world, there has been a very hard press in the public sector to erase boundaries—whether network boundaries through wireless or actual jurisdictional boundaries through regional efforts,” Bellevue’s Cramer says.

Workplace Strategies

All four IT leaders identified one of their main challenges as recruiting and retaining IT staff against the backdrop of a fluctuating private sector job market. “If the market continues to grow and people feel comfortable with the economy, we will see recruitment becoming a huge issue again around fiscal years ’07 and ’08, which are going to be years of large-scale IT retirements in Philadelphia,” Neff says.

Bellevue’s Cramer believes CIOs can improve this situation by adopting certain strategies, such as ensuring that the work is interesting, opportunities for skill set enhancement exist and staff members are not overworked.

“I have a community that is very dependent on the services that we provide, but it’s important that the people who work here have a life and feel satisfied professionally as well as personally,” she says. “I don’t work people 80 hours a week. I try to maintain some sanity in the work program so that the staff has a reasonable work week and people have flexibility with schedules.”

Setting State Policy

Michigan’s Takai thinks the trend toward the centralization and consolidation of IT resources is going to continue, with CIOs taking a leading role in facilitating the process. She also expects the CIO position to evolve into a much stronger force in setting state policy on issues like security and outsourcing.

Nevada’s Savage predicts that the ability to identify stakeholders and develop consensus will become increasingly important. “In the future, CIOs will be doing more political work and less technical work,” he says. “Everybody needs to be prepared for that.”

Bellevue’s Cramer and Philadelphia’s Neff agree that the connections between service delivery, business development and the technology that supports them will become even more intertwined than they are today.

“The investment has been just enormous,” Cramer says. “If you look at what the public sector is set up to spend on technology in the next 10 years, it’s critical that we work together and figure out ways to leverage our investments so that we get more bang for the public’s dollar. In the last decade, there has been a history of everybody reinventing the wheel and doing their own thing, and that has to change.”

There are adaptations still to be made, but CIOs have always needed the ability to lead change. So, although increased budgets, greater political responsibility and a heightened business sense have altered the environment they operate in, one thing is certain: The CIOs of the future will need the same skills, characteristics and ability to evolve as today’s IT executives.

CIO: Top of Mind

The changing role of government CIOs doesn’t mean their plates are less full. Here are just some of the issues on the minds of CIOs today.

What do you think should be the top agenda item for government CIOs today?

53% Working with lines of business to transform government programs and services 24% Ensuring that IT helps cut government costs and runs efficiently
12% Showing a return on investment for IT spending
8% Ensuring network and data security and protecting privacy
4% Determining viable sourcing strategies for IT

What consumes most of a government CIO’s time?

35% Navigating turf and politics
28% Governance issues (people and processes used to make decisions about IT)
19% Putting out fires, especially on large, highly visible IT projects
10% Making business case to executives for IT role in business transformation/change
8% Managing people

What is the primary reason why government CIOs should be pursuing IT consolidation efforts?

38% Serve citizens and stakeholders more consistently
28% To help cut overall IT costs and show value for money
19% Better IT integrity (better security, availability and reliability)
9% Better business and IT integration
7% Help achieve greater controls, transparency and compliance

Source: Intergovernmental CIO Roundtable—2005 NASCIO Midyear Conference

Oct 31 2006