Oct 25 2022

CIO vs. CTO vs. CDO: What’s the Difference?

As chief data officers emerge as critical public sector officials, how do we distinguish the role?

States have been sitting on mountains of data for decades. Government leaders have started to recognize that the information has value and can be used for insight, planning, services and all-around smarter governance.

As governments emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns, few people have stolen the spotlight more than chief data officers, a relatively new position for state and local governments that’s quickly gaining importance.

The arrival of the CDO heralds an evolution in how organizations approach IT. CIOs and CTOs ideally must work closely with CDOs to generate data deliverables for top management.

Experts say that defining the duties of state CIOs, CDOs and CTOs should be considered a moving target.

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What Does a Government CDO Do?

Organizations are just now beginning to decouple the I from the T of IT, as described by Doug Laney, author of the influential book Infonomics. Gartner defines a chief data officer as follows:

“The CDO is a senior executive who bears responsibility for the firm’s enterprisewide data and information strategy, governance, control, policy development, and effective exploitation. The CDO’s role will combine accountability and responsibility for information protection and privacy, information governance, data quality and data lifecycle management, along with the exploitation of data assets to create business value.”

It's no error that the description sounds as much like a technologist as a manager.

“The best CDOs know how to handle people issues as well as tech issues,” says Katya Abazajian, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center. The organization runs the State Chief Data Officers Network, a community of practice to educate about and improve how states use their CDO positions.

Indiana CDO Josh Martin is the second person to hold that position in the state. It was created by statute in 2017, and it’s Martin’s task to handle data analytics master planning, run the state’s central data organization, and advise and assist in the overall creation of government data. And he didn’t even start out in IT.

“My formal training is in public administration, and I’ve learned tech over time,” Martin says.

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Martin uses his administrative skills to create data guidelines and policies, which requires working closely with other state agencies. “You didn’t have a data management professional in state government in the past,” he says. “It just didn’t really exist. Nobody was thinking about the secondary use of data.” It’s a big job; Indiana has 70 executive agencies.

Martin has a leg up for two reasons: His job is statutory and he has an $8 million annual budget and 40 staffers. Experts say the key to success for a CDO is having the authority to reach across agencies and the money to make things happen.

“You want them to create the overarching data architecture for the state,” says Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. “You need juice to be able to do that.”

Ken Pfeil became Virginia’s CDO in April. He came from the banking industry and noticed differences working in state government right away.

“You’ve got to build consensus at a much deeper level than in the private sector,” he says. Pfeil is an appointee, so everyone knows he’s only around for four years. The CDO also has a separate budget ($4.6 million) and the ability to reach out to cabinet members for assistance working with agencies when required.

Pfeil speaks with his CIO counterpart daily. “At the end of the day, we’re here to help our agencies make the right decisions with the right data,” he says.

What Does a Government CIO Do?

A state CIO traditionally has the responsibility for handling all things IT for a state government’s executive branch. That’s beginning to change, but in most cases, the CDO and CTO report to this position. Like the CDO, the CIO’s job is evolving into more than just worrying about servers, software and wires.

“The shift over the past 20 years is to a focus on strategy,” Robinson says. “They may not have a strong tech background.”

Jim Weaver, CIO of North Carolina, spent 35 years in IT leadership positions in Pennsylvania and Washington state before being appointed in 2021. All three states handle the CIO position differently, he says. Pennsylvania had a centralized model. Washington was a Cabinet-level position but was more decentralized.

“It was a shepherding role, trying to get all the kittens in the basket,” Weaver says.

North Carolina is more of a hybrid, and it’s broader. Weaver is responsible for the 911 system, the state broadband program, the health information exchange, the data analytics center and information privacy, among other areas. And his runway is short: As an appointee, Weaver has about two years before he is replaced in a new administration.

“The joke among state CIOs is that it stands for ‘career is over,’” he says. The average state CIO’s tenure is 25 months.

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What Does a Government CTO Do?

The CTO is the executive that oversees the state’s IT architecture and does the strategic planning to bring new information resources online.

“The CTO deals typically with emerging technology,” says Chris Estes, a finance, operations and technology leader for EY. “They design the systems and how they work together to form a seamless experience, like the architect that designs your house.”

The CTO usually reports to the CIO, and much of the job is focused on migrating state IT and software systems to the cloud, Robinson says. In the old model, the state owned and operated all the hardware and software.

Increasingly, the CIO, CTO and CDO must work effectively as a team to manage a state’s information ecosystem.

“What we’re trying to do with the CTO and CDO is bring together where our data is,” Weaver says. “It’s the golden record approach,” he adds, referring to a data management concept of boiling down all sources of information on a subject to one highly accurate file.

Charday Penn/Getty Images

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