Edward E. Hemminger, CIO, Ontario County, N.Y./Photo by Michael Okoniewski Ontario County, N.Y., CIO Edward E. Hemminger Photo by Michael Okoniewski

When Mike Manikowski, the economic development director of Ontario County, N.Y., goes on business retention or recruitment calls, there's one person he rarely leaves behind: the county's CIO.

Manikowski and CIO Ed Hemminger work as a team to promote a technology-driven development strategy for the county, which is located in western New York's Finger Lakes region.

"He's a very collaborative guy, very enthusiastic, and he's a shaper of public opinion," Manikowski said about Hemminger. "He'll go speak to any community group, whether its four people or 400."

To boost broadband infrastructure in underserved parts of the county, Hemminger and Manikowski led county efforts to create a fiber ring. The county established and helped fund the nonprofit Finger Lakes Regional Telecommunications Development Corp. -- with Hemminger as CEO -- to build the fiber ring by 2010 and lease extra capacity to other entities.

Ontario County's story is still a rarity. A CIO seldom becomes the region's chief technology officer -- a de facto role Hemminger took -- who plans how infrastructure investments can boost economic development. But some experts believe there's a leadership vacuum waiting to be filled by confident and ambitious public-sector CIOs.

"More economic development organizations are noting the importance of a strong regional IT infrastructure, but some of it is just lip service," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C. Atkinson said CIOs "should be up on the bridge, not down in the engine room."

The space is available, and there's nobody better situated than a public-sector CIO to fill it, Atkinson said. IT executives should avoid a narrow focus -- like deciding which server software version to use -- and instead pursue a broader vision of what IT can contribute to their jurisdictions' goals. Too many CIOs have defined their role narrowly, he said. "They tend to think of e-gov as internal to government, rather than in terms of e-society, and there is a big, big difference."

Hemminger agrees. "It is up to CIOs to take the initiative and get involved," he said. "When you see economic-development start to thrive, you get a warm, fuzzy feeling because you know you are starting to really make a difference in the big-picture stuff, and that is a fun thing to do."

 

SmartRiverside

Two years ago, Riverside, Calif., Mayor Ron Loveridge didn't hesitate asking city CIO Steve Reneker to become the executive director of SmartRiverside, a technology-focused economic-development effort.

"You walk into Steve's office, and there is a picture of him at the summit of Mount Everest," Loveridge said. "It's a perfect illustration of his incredible ability and determination to get things done."

Launched a decade ago, SmartRiverside has two primary objectives. The first is digital inclusion -- getting computers, Internet access and technology training to 20,000 families by 2010. The second is to engage technology business CEOs in how the city can foster the local, high-tech economy.

Loveridge thought Reneker was a natural fit to lead the effort because he made the commitment to a citywide Wi-Fi initiative and previously worked for Dell.

Two years ago, a local high-technology task force outlined how it thought SmartRiverside could help retain and recruit high-tech companies. Reneker sees his job as addressing its suggested actions, including implementing wireless technology citywide.

The toughest aspect of the executive director role, Reneker said, is balancing it with his full-time job as CIO. He estimates that he spends 50 percent of his time on SmartRiverside. He has made that possible by hiring a strong lieutenant in chief technology officer (CTO) Leyden Hahn, who oversees daily city IT operations. Also, most of the city's IT operations are outsourced, so Reneker believes he can set the strategic vision and spend more time on SmartRiverside, including the Wi-Fi network project that he manages.

Another key milestone, he said, was the recent opening of a technology park that has five tenants and also an incubator established by the city and county to encourage entrepreneurs from the state university system. In 2008, SmartRiverside inaugurated a high-tech expo and conference it plans to make an annual event.

CIOs can play a bigger role, Reneker said, but "it depends on city executives with the vision to understand they have a resource internally."

 

Competing with Austin, Texas, Tokyo and Beijing

The decision to build a fiber-optic ring in Ontario County, N.Y., began in 2005 with an analysis of where fiber already existed in the county. "We found five separate phone companies and two cable companies, and the service was quite fragmented," recalled Hemminger. "In the northern part of the county, broadband access was OK. In the southern part, we had almost none."

County leaders asked themselves if there was enough demand for leased fiber to make their effort self-sustainable -- they decided there was. County supervisors also changed a law that allowed the formation of the nonprofit Finger Lakes Regional Telecommunications Development Corp. in October 2005.

Photo: Ontario County, N.Y., CIO Edward E. Hemminger

The startup is fully funded by the county's prepayment for 25 years of service and franchise payments from a company that was building a gas pipeline through the county.

Potential users include phone and Internet service providers that won't have to lease fiber from competitors, as well as local banks and colleges.

"The goal is to become globally competitive, not just with Austin, Texas, but also with Beijing and Tokyo," Hemminger explained. "It's important that telecom is not an impediment to doing business here. We have a phenomenal quality of life here, and with world-class telecom at the doorstep, companies will start considering us for data centers and locate here and connect to other sites and other companies."

 

Digital El Paso

One technology executive whose job description has grown to match his natural inclination toward teamwork is Peter Cooper, CTO of El Paso County, Texas. "This is not just a techie job," he stressed. "It has evolved into a good combination that includes collaboration with other government entities, higher education and groups that affect economic development in general."

Cooper has been a key player in the Wi-Fi project Digital El Paso, which started with a two-square-mile area that includes downtown El Paso and some low-income residential neighborhoods stretching to the Mexican border. The group meets monthly to exchange ideas and has grown to include clinics, nonprofits, schools and businesses, Cooper said. The effort is also a digital-inclusion project in which El Paso Community College takes donated PCs and refurbishes them for low-income families.

Cooper also recently chaired a high-tech business expo organized by the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Rather than just vendors, we got a number of regional tech projects to showcase what they are doing," he said. "We tried to do more to promote El Paso and some of the smaller tech efforts you never get a chance to hear about."

 

Developing State Interest

Most state-level technology executives tend to be a traditional CIO who focuses on internal operations. But Virginia has both CIO Lem Stewart, who oversees the state's internal IT agency, and Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra. "When Virginia created [my] office, it was explicitly part of its core mission to focus on growing the tech economy," Chopra said.

Chopra has several public policy tools at his disposal. For instance, the Commonwealth Technology Research Fund invests in promising startups to accelerate research and development activities across the state. "There's a commercialization gap on innovations coming out of our public universities," he explained, adding that the "gap funding" from Virginia helps startups attract private capital.

Photo: Aneesh P. Chopra, secretary of technology, Virginia

Chopra also has actively participated in the Chesapeake Crescent Innovation Alliance that's designed to stitch together the economic prospects of six major research universities in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Can state CIOs take responsibility for both day-to-day operations and the type of strategic activity that Chopra tackles? Blending policy and operations roles may pose a challenge in terms of time, energy and focus.

Whether the CIO should get involved may depend on the executive branch itself, Chopra believes. Is the administration properly nurturing innovation in all its forms? Who in the executive branch goes to bed at night worrying about innovation and nurturing the tech economy? Is the CIO involved in transforming health care and education? Are they thinking about electronic health records? "It's an open question," Chopra said, "whether a state CIO should be involved at that level or not. But if a governor has technology innovation as a top priority, somebody has to be accountable for delivering on it."

David Raths  |  contributing writer