For more than six months, I have played the role of embedded reporter, getting as close as possible to the front lines where government and technology intersect. Since January, I've zigzagged across the eastern half of the country, visiting state capitals, large cities and Washington, D.C., to meet with CIOs and their peers. At the same time, my colleagues Steve Towns and Shane Peterson, editor and associate editor, respectively, of Government Technology magazine, have been doing the same west of the Mississippi River.
We've spent hours listening to government's top IT leaders discuss and politely debate issues that affect them as they lead and manage information technology in the public sector. The gatherings are small, but the groups are always dynamic. Besides CIOs for state, city and federal government, we meet a cross section of agency CIOs, IT directors from neighboring jurisdictions, and more recently, chiefs of staff from mayors' or governors' offices.
As expected, some common themes emerged: the fiscal crisis and its impact on IT projects, cyber-security, political pressure to show results, labor union issues and the looming retirement crisis, to name just a few.
But like any good story, the interesting stuff is more often the players, their personalities and the spirit that drives them to take on such demanding jobs. Some are relative newcomers from the private sector, like Art Stephens in Pennsylvania. Others are government veterans in their jurisdiction, such as Jim Dillon of New York and Karen Evans with the federal government. Dianah Neff of Philadelphia has spent years directing IT at the local level, serving numerous cities and counties. Behind-the-scenes experts from interagency and public policy associations who toil away at lowering the barriers to intergovernmental solutions can also be found at the roundtables.
They all have different leadership styles, but share a common bond in that they are on the front lines, helping government evolve from a somewhat backward, stovepiped institution built on principles set down before World War II, to one that is efficient, effective, streamlined and technologically advanced. And as battle-hardened as they are to the realities of working in government, their edges are softened by their unique form of public-sector leadership. Hard-charging, corporate-style leaders don't last long in this environment. The art of persuasion and collaboration are the hallmarks of leadership for most government CIOs. In my book, that's what makes them so interesting and appealing.
My time as an embedded reporter isn't over. It turns out CIOs and their peers like to talk, exchange ideas and listen to what we've heard while on the road. So we're planning to conduct more roundtables in the coming months. I look forward to them.