When John Thomas Flynn became chief information officer for Massachusetts in 1994, he had to explain to Gov. William Weld what the title meant. But that was the least of Flynn's problems. "There was no model in state government for CIO when I took that position in Massachusetts," he recalled. "I ended up modeling my job after the position at General Motors, which had divisional information officers report to the CIO."

In the five years since Flynn created what he believes to be one of the first true state CIO positions in the country, the role of the CIO still remains ill-defined, making the job complicated, stressful and subject to high rates of turnover. "There's an ongoing dynamic to what the proper role of the state CIO should be," said Flynn, who later became CIO for California and last year joined Litton/PRC as vice president.

On the one hand, states realize they need someone in charge of technology, which now constitutes as much as 10 percent of a typical state budget. On the other hand, nearly half of the states still don't have an official "CIO" position and many still divide IT budgets by agency, each of which has its own IT director and data center.

For CIOs, the reality of working with divided authority and locking horns with independent agency heads can burn out the most determined people. "I think more CIOs fail because the deck is stacked against them," said George Lindamood, former CIO for Washington and now an independent consultant.

Balancing Policy and Operations

If there's one card in particular state CIOs need to be dealt, it's the one for authority. Less than a half-dozen CIOs have a position in their governor's cabinet, according to Flynn, who was president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE) while California's CIO. "You need two things to get your job done," he continued. "First, the absolute authority from the governor to be accountable for getting the job done, and second, overall operational responsibility for all IT aspects of the state."

Flynn firmly believes that controlling the purse strings makes it easier to get things done, but without operational authority, meeting policy goals can be difficult. He cited a lack of control over California's multiple data centers as a key impediment to his efforts to streamline and improve how the state used IT.

Having that kind of authority can lead to trouble, however. While CIO in Washington, Lindamood held both the policy and operations role for IT, but he was criticized for holding too much power. Ironically, his authority came about because the state was determined to do things the way they were done in the private sector. "I told them if our role is to emulate the private sector, then don't worry about it," recalled Lindamood. "We're doing exactly what the private sector does."

In retrospect, Lindamood now believes separating policy and operations into two different roles makes sense. Not only is the dual role extremely demanding, but there are instances where a conflict of interest could occur. The most obvious example is outsourcing, which is happening with greater frequency these days. "The person in charge of operations is going to resist outsourcing, because it does away with his power," Lindamood explained. "When the same person is also in charge of policy, how can he or she decide, without conflict of interest, when outsourcing is appropriate?"

Harmful Turnover Rates

In 1996, Congress passed the Clinger-Cohen Act, which directed major agencies of the federal government to appoint CIOs. Despite the mandate, a number of cabinet agencies avoided creating the new post. Many of those that followed the mandate failed to give CIOs the power of the purse. The first crop of CIOs also ran into the brick wall

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor