Feb 28 2024

Q&A: NASCIO’s Doug Robinson Discusses the Expanding Role of the State CIO

The group’s executive director shares his tips to prepare for the future, and partnerships are at the center.

In January, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers updated its mission statement for the first time in 20 years. Not since 2004, the year Doug Robinson became NASCIO’s executive director, has the organization tweaked its concisely worded mission to advance government excellence.

The mission statement reflects not just what NASCIO should do but also what its members should strive for. StateScoop reports that the changes include:

  • Mentioning the importance of advancing “trusted collaboration” and partnerships in its mission statement
  • Replacing the term “information technology” with just “technology” in the mission statement and throughout its strategic plan
  • Adding a goal for the group of advocating for a “highly skilled and resilient technology workforce”

Where another organization might have pages-long strategic plans, NASCIO’s is just one — an effort to stay high level so that members and CIOs can more easily remain mission-focused, Robinson says. Plus, NASCIO’s mission statement and vision are just a sentence apiece. So, while the edits may seem slight, they’re significant because they’re an official recognition from NASCIO of the marked changes to the state CIO role.

Why revise things now if technology and the nature of the state CIO are always evolving?

“I don’t know if it was a timing thing as much as recognition,” Robinson says. “CIOs are, in fact, going to continue to be more reliant on partnerships, particularly with industry, for their success in the future.”

StateTech spoke with Robinson about the meaning behind NASCIO’s changes, today’s tech landscape, what the role of CIO looks like now, and what state governments and their CIOs should do to prepare for the future.

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STATETECH: The change in NASCIO’s mission statement emphasizes that state CIOs rely on tech partnerships more than they did in the past. Why has the role of state CIO changed?

ROBINSON: I think it’s the nature of constant technological evolution. I spent a dozen years in state government and IT, and we had an owner-operator model. The state owned the equipment, the data center and the full technology stack, and it wrote a lot of the software. It was essentially a self-contained ecosystem. You had partners, but they weren’t actually involved in operating or servicing at that level.

Clearly, we’ve evolved with cloud, Software as a Service and third-party off-premises solutions — the evolution of the whole environment of business modernization. Now, you have scaled cloud solutions and business software that states can consume. This requires really tight partnerships to work. This has also come about because states are always dealing with budgetary and resource constraints that make it exceedingly difficult to get capital for large projects and technical expertise.

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STATETECH: What does the role of state CIO look like now?

ROBINSON: The “CIO as a broker” model is the future, where the CIO is the inductor of a variety of sourcing options rather than the source of all the options. If you look at our data, including our 2023 State CIO Survey where we asked CIOs what they see as their role in terms of serving their customer agencies, there are dramatic changes.

The role of state CIO has always been focused on what I’ll call the operational delivery side, the infrastructure side. But now we see 96 percent of CIOs saying that their role is to provide strategic direction and policymaking. Infrastructure provisioning was only the third most-voted service that CIOs will provide. That’s a big shift in the role.

It’s important to understand that CIOs are business leaders of IT. Technology is now part of the fabric of government; it’s no longer a back-office function. It’s a strategic enabler to transformation. You’re seeing many CIOs embrace that their role is no longer just to be the mainframe person or the computer person. They should be at the table with the other major leaders to talk, whether it’s about budget, human capital management, personnel issues or technology. Infrastructure and delivery are still part of the role, but now so are leadership, strategic direction and policymaking.

Doug Robinson
Technology is now part of the fabric of government; it’s no longer a back-office function. It’s a strategic enabler to transformation.”

Doug Robinson Executive Director, NASCIO

STATETECH: What challenges does this evolution bring about for CIOs?

ROBINSON: A lot of CIOs aspire to be influencers — to use the common new phrase — to work more in relationship-building and management. Many CIOs will tell you that where they make progress is in building relationships with the governor’s office, the chief of administration or the legislative body. That’s very challenging, though, because of their role in service delivery and that their tenures can be so short.

State CIO is an exceedingly difficult job because you’re constantly trying to bring the agency directions together and make sure that agencies are following the overall architectural direction. I think most of them aspire to have a balance where they’re delivering the necessary services to their customer agencies while also working on the strategic direction of the state in general around technology and technology policy acquisition.

DISCOVER: State and local governments strengthen services through data center optimization.

STATETECH: In this landscape, what can state CIOs do to face these challenges?

ROBINSON: We do a state CIO workshop almost every year before our NASCIO Midyear Conference, and we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of relationship management. To be a state CIO, folks need to understand how to communicate a strategic vision across a broad constituency, some of whom might be opposed to the direction you’re going in. How do you build relationships with line-of-business decision-makers, the chief of administration, the procurement office, general counsel, legislators? We talk more about soft skills being important.

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