August 11, 2009 By Dan Ross
As I watched the November 2008 election results pour in, the reality that my 37-year career in Missouri state government would be ending began to sink in. More troubling to me, however, was the realization that I'd no longer be state CIO, a job I had been blessed to have for the past four years. In just two short months, I'd have to turn in my "white knight" hat, uniform and badge to the next person appointed to be a defender of citizen information, advocate for enterprise architecture and an efficiency driver.
Over the four years of former Gov. Matt Blunt's administration, much was accomplished, yet much remains to be done. My team and I pulled off total consolidation of 1,200 IT staff, and budgets and equipment from 14 siloed Cabinet agencies. We migrated 30,000 end-users into a single Active Directory forest and enterprise e-mail system, architected the state's first enterprise disaster recovery site for open systems, and successfully negotiated a next-generation network delivery contract. My avatar, which can fly and leap tall buildings in a single bound, was welcoming visitors to Missouri's pioneering recruiting site in online virtual world Second Life.
After four years, I grew to become a mile wide and a foot deep in myriad technology topics, from rural bandwidth to social networking. It's this diverse set of responsibilities and roles that makes the public-sector CIO position a rewarding and daunting opportunity.
The standing joke among my peers is that CIO stands for "Career Is Over" ... hmm. This impending change in my identity has compelled me to offer some just-in-time mentoring for encouragement. I'll also provide some free advice to new or aspiring CIOs and managers who find themselves lacking the resources or support to truly be a change agent.
Public-sector CIO jobs aren't maintenance positions -- they are leadership roles. Your success in that capacity will depend on numerous factors, not the least of which is ensuring key positions are filled by employees who are willing to get into the boat and start rowing toward the strategic plan objectives. The first key position I filled was a deputy CIO, whose skill set included facilitation, leading a strategic planning process, business process improvement, and proficiency in presentation software and public speaking. Together we used our combined skills to set a direction, make a compelling case for consolidation, and communicate up and down the organizational structure.
Every enterprise should have five things. The first is a vision that dictates and articulates what the outcomes for success will be. In Missouri, that vision was provided by Blunt, who ran for office partially on a promise to deliver efficiencies and smaller government through IT consolidation.
The second factor is having an organizational structure that reflects and enables the customer's business processes. I inherited a structure that was in conflict with business processes, one that was based on individual personalities and "turf." This problem demanded immediate attention if we were going to move forward. Obviously there was some resistance to organizational change, and my state's selective service merit system required my attention to coax its guardians into using it to help me rather than be a barrier. Understanding your environment and how it works is crucial. The third factor is a team-based strategic plan. Now that I had in place a skilled facilitator, a new organizational structure designed to reduce or eliminate barriers, and the right people in the key positions, we -- the mid- and upper-level managers -- were ready to plan how to conduct the nuts and bolts of consolidation. The resultant to-do list was predictably long, which leads to the fourth key factor: prioritization. Experience told me to start with manageable and meaningful initiatives, then build on those successes. As a leader and change agent, I always reminded myself that, to me, IT consolidation and organizational change were what I did. For IT staff, it was something that happened to them.
The final key factor is determining meaningful measures. They are the currency you have to articulate where you are and why you are there. Failure to develop and report measures empowers your detractors, leaving you and your hard work defenseless and subject to anecdotal criticism. If you have the measurement information, you control the dialog.
Times of fiscal belt tightening generate opportunity for IT leadership to make technology inroads into stodgy, ancient, siloed bureaucracy. Once you're in, you're in. There's no going back later because, invariably, costs will have decreased or remained level. Staff numbers and funding will have decreased or been reallocated, and service will be measurably better, faster and possibly cheaper. You might also discover newfound support for a mandate for architectural standards, disaster recovery, service-oriented architecture and, dare I say it -- if government is really serious about saving money, improving service and improving security -- IT consolidation.
To be a successful public- and private-sector CIO, you must grasp the concept that your customers are very important. In fact, they're the only reason we exist. That is a message that you must find a way to drive down into your organization. Relationship building is also essential to your success as a technology leader.
Building public-sector relationships involves much more than showing up for one meeting or a hearing with reams of documentation that show how efficient or cost-effective your organization is or could be. Decision-makers (i.e., legislators, governors, mayors, county commissioners and other elected officials) are inundated with information and statistics, so your "compelling case" will likely wind up in the recycle bin. There will be a time and place for details, but establishing a trusted relationship is the first order of business. It's usually easy to secure a meeting with a decision-maker or his or her senior staffers.
Do some research in order to make the best use of the opportunity. Find out who decision-makers represent, what they are interested in professionally and personally, what committees they are on or what organizations they belong to, when their term expires, what their constituents are interested in and, if possible, what they dislike or are against.
Armed with this kind of information, you can craft your message to inform decision-makers of your role, how what you do will positively impact them and their constituents, and the one or two most important initiatives or challenges of your organization.
Politics come with all government leadership positions, and the CIO is no exception. Leaders have a choice: You can be indignant and resolve to fight or resist politics or, better yet, you can embrace the reality and resolve to make the process work for everyone. A strategy that worked for us was to establish architecture standards and a strategic plan with vendors' input, communicate this information publicly and then ask for help from vendors and lobbyists once it's time to spread a shared message of reinvesting savings to keep state technology current.
Government and its processes can prove to be impenetrable barriers to businesses that are trying to market products and services. Add the fact that procurement processes vary widely across and within government, and it's no surprise that businesses look for quicker methods to gain access, like hiring lobbying services. Lobbying and politics aren't inherently evil. It's the recognized process that nonprofits, private businesses, government agencies (and savvy CIOs) use to express their interests and concerns. Politics doesn't have to be a pressure-packed adversarial sport. With a little transparency and communication, it can be a rewarding process for everyone.
A final bit of free advice: Select as many trade magazines as you can reasonably and regularly read. Know what's going on in consumer electronics markets, electronic medical records, real ID, virtualization, electronic records management and other evolving topics. Try to develop a big picture of the direction that technology is heading so you can factor that into your decision-making.
Peer networking happens in the evenings at conferences or technology seminars -- in the bar, at late dinners or in hospitality rooms. There you can hear the sad lamenting of former state, county or city government CIOs who have moved to the private sector. They'll tell you the compensation is significantly better in the private sector and then wistfully admit that serving as CIO was the best job they ever had. They long for the ability to be change agents, pull the levers of government and provide useful products and services directly to their government and citizen customers. They've moved on, but the image in the rearview mirror evokes fond memories of a time and place where they stood in the gap and public view, connecting customers and information.
I now find myself adjusting that rearview mirror, preparing to pull away knowing I will have fond memories of being a change agent. It's one of the most rewarding opportunities a person can have.
Photos by Stefan Hester
Video: State IT jobs and IT job fairs went virtual in the Second Life kiosk developed by the State of Missouri.
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