In North Carolina, virtually every professional position in local government is associated with a certification program. Until this year, however, the position of CIO was a glaring exception.

For IT leaders in city and county government, lack of official credentials may cause problems. If government executives and elected officials don't understand what it takes to run an IT department, and top IT officials lack the certifications to prove that they do, the IT department may have a tough time getting support for IT initiatives.

Back to School

Starting this year, the Center for Public Technology, part of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Government, offers a Chief Information Officers' Certification Program. It's hoped the program -- called the CIO School -- will provide the official seal of approval that local CIOs and IT directors have lacked.

The center created the CIO School at the request of the North Carolina Local Government Information Systems Association (NCLGISA). In addition to certifying IT leaders as public-sector professionals, the program has a second goal, said Shannon Schelin, director of UNC's Center for Public Technology.

It's to teach IT leaders to work more effectively with government managers and elected officials, allowing governments to use IT more intelligently, Schelin said.

"Elected officials and managers invest in IT 'ad hocly,' and they don't follow the enterprise models that work best," Schelin continued, explaining that the CIO School provides the knowledge and tools IT leaders need to make the business case to policy-makers for the enterprise approach.

With the exception of July and December, the one-year certification program meets in Chapel Hill every month. Each month's session lasts two or three days and focuses on a different topic. The course assumes students already have the technical know-how to run an IT department, and therefore covers skills such as project management, risk management, strategic planning and communications.

More Than a Geek

Generally people who become local government CIOs rise through the ranks because of their technical proficiency.

"Then they get into a managerial role, and they lack many of the soft skills," Schelin said. "They aren't good at the basic things that make their jobs easier when they talk to elected officials, county or city managers, or end-users."

The North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) is an adviser to the Center for Public Technology, and some NCLM staff teach courses at the CIO school.

"It's very difficult to get courses about how to manage an IT department," said Lee Mendell, director of information technology and research at the Raleigh, N.C.-based NCLM. "Looking at a CIO as more than just a technology geek is a very important step forward in improving the ability of local governments to take advantage of the transformational power of IT."

Schelin teaches about 75 percent of the courses. Guest lecturers -- including Mendell; Bill Willis, the deputy CIO of North Carolina; technology professionals from IBM and Delphi; and several mayors and city managers -- teach the remaining courses. Tuition is $1,350 for the certification program, or $1,800 for certification as well as UNC graduate credit.

To qualify, a participant must already work in public-sector IT, and with 33 students enrolled, the first class is full. The current group includes IT staff members who hope to someday run departments, and others who are already IT directors, Schelin said.

"Because this was the first course, and because Shannon wanted a lot of feedback on how this was going to work, many of the people in there are long-term CIOs," said Mendell. He said he expects that, over time, the majority of students will not be CIOs but potential CIOs.

"All the folks in the class right now

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer