Running a public-sector IT organization has never been easy, but at least it used to be straightforward. In the good old days, you oversaw systems development, managed data centers and set IT policy. Though the job was challenging, your work force was largely stable and your responsibilities mostly clear. You advanced by hiring competent technical employees, making sure the mainframe didn't go down and -- perhaps most importantly -- by not angering the legislature.

This picture bears little resemblance to the challenges facing today's public-sector CIOs -- except, of course, the bit about not angering the legislature. Consolidation, centralization, outsourcing, utility computing, public-private partnerships and other trends have fundamentally changed the role of government IT organizations and the people who lead them.

And the implications are profound.

Skill-Set Transformation

Since the first mainframe computers rolled off the IBM assembly line in 1964, the skills valued in government IT shops have been largely technical -- skills that are still the most prevalent in many government organizations. Unfortunately they're not typically the ones most needed today, because governments rarely develop large information systems themselves anymore. The marketplace tends to meet the need more efficiently, so that when public CIOs need a technology solution, they buy it, and often even depend on contractors to maintain these applications and systems.

The shift to consolidated and federated IT organizational models, which have brought about a movement to standardized solutions, also contributes to the need for a different mix of skills. Most in demand are individuals who can develop standards and processes for getting these solutions up and running quickly across agencies to meet the changing business demand.

In the wake of these changes IT personnel now must manage partners, build bridges and monitor performance across a wide range of public and private organizations. The skills required to do this effectively fall into three broad categories:

  • Cross-boundary. Governments increasingly require cross-agency and cross-sector teams to tackle complex projects. Technology professionals who work in application development, for example, can no longer be just programmers or managers of programmers. They must also have the skills to understand business problems, find solutions, sell their ideas and bring organizations together for cross-agency projects.

  • Vendor management. In the wake of IT outsourcing and public-private partnership growth, many government agencies no longer have enough skilled people who can sit across the table from private firms and go toe-to-toe. Public IT organizations must strengthen their capabilities in negotiation, mediation, risk analysis and contract management.

  • Project management. A core talent for today's government IT professionals is project management. IT organizations need project managers who are comfortable working in a matrix environment, with roles defined less by rigid hierarchies and more their current project demands.

    Getting There

    How do you deliver tomorrow's solutions using today's people? And how do you attract new talent to fill in the gaps? There's no magic solution for the kind of skill-set changes public IT organizations are facing -- but there are some instructive examples, such as the transformation under way in Michigan and a bold approach in Delaware.

    CIOs must first develop a long-term talent strategy that compares expected needs to overall labor trends, and then provide specific steps to plug the gaps. When Michigan transferred all of its IT employees to one organization, Michigan Department of Information and Technology (MDIT) leadership had to realign a very diverse set of skills, fill and balance the gaps resulting from an early retirement program, and anticipate future skill drains due to the pending retirement wave. The state started with a skill inventory, built jointly by managers and staff, which identified 60 critical job roles. The core competencies identified for each job role have since become an integral part of the hiring, development and performance management processes. Staffers also benefited from intensive training in project management -- 20 MDIT staff now enter the state's project management certification program each month.

    Beyond training, MDIT also created a unit that specializes in partnering. Michigan's Office of Technology Partnerships fosters cross-boundary technology collaboration and partnerships with businesses, K-12 institutions, universities and local governments. One goal has been to provide an institutional mechanism to support and develop a core group of employees with sophisticated capabilities in partnering, relationships and management.

    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, to build the next-generation IT work force, public CIOs will need a much higher degree of flexibility to hire new workers quickly, promote top talent and deal with poor performers. Employees also need more flexibility, and should have the ability to alternate easily from projects -- and work on cross-agency, cross-sector project teams without sacrificing career advancement.

    In Michigan, a gubernatorial executive order gives the CIO full authority to consolidate, reassign and restructure the executive branch IT staff. Sustained under two administrations, the authority is a critical component of modernizing Michigan's IT capabilities.

    In many cases, existing civil service systems simply don't allow the kind of flexibility required to attract, develop and deploy employees to meet today's demands. Facing this situation in Delaware, CIO Tom Jarrett took the state's Department of Technology and Information team outside the civil service system. He was granted a tremendous amount of freedom to design the work force to fit the state's needs. Salaries were made more competitive with the private sector -- with the stipulation that employees meet performance targets. And staff members were asked to re-interview for their jobs. Georgia did this too -- even taking the concept a step further to cover the entire work force.

    Moving forward, it's essential that IT organizations form a strong partnership with civil service organizations to address necessary changes. As governments face the need for intensified succession planning, it presents an opportunity to shape the next-generation IT organization -- while maintaining employee morale and loyalty. In Michigan, MDIT will be a pilot for the state's succession planning program.

    Upgrading Partner Management

    In the past, vendors and independent contractors were given work on a piecemeal basis. But the move toward fixed-price projects with formal deliverables requires a different approach -- from a technical standpoint and in the way contractors are managed. And the need for change is urgent.

    Private-sector IT executives overwhelmingly cite the procurement bureaucracy as the biggest obstacle to doing business with government (see Facing the Challenge, right). They're right. Existing IT procurement processes are often far more painful and time-consuming than they need to be -- and don't always produce the desired result. Streamlining procurement is acutely and distinctly important for technology solutions due to their limited shelf life.

    Transitioning to a consolidated or federated model should actually help in tackling this challenge. It creates the economies of scale necessary to consolidate contract management expertise in one organization, straightening the procurement maze in the process. Hiring and training more people with partner management expertise will also help. For very large projects, another option is to bring in a third party to assist with vendor management. Michigan, for example, bids out the program management office separately from the contract for development and implementation.

    Lastly, use consistent measures to evaluate vendor performance across the enterprise, and continually capture vendor knowledge to ensure knowledge doesn't walk out the door at the end of the project.

    Maintaining Organizational Integrity

    As government agencies rely increasingly on private firms -- and in some cases other governmental partners -- to fulfill new technology needs, they must beware of becoming "hollow." They should maintain the ability to effectively and credibly manage technology vendors by retaining sufficient in-house resources that understand the technologies.

    Specifically agencies should bear in mind the following limits to vendor reliance:

  • Maintain in-house knowledge of the computing utility and of telecommunications.

  • Know exactly what you're buying and why. For example, while outside vendors may be the best option for some technology and related services, they may not be the best option for all maintenance needs. Buy only what you need.

  • Use vendors to introduce a new and unfamiliar technology -- but when it makes sense, develop over time in-house capabilities to meet emerging demands. MDIT, for example, created an initiative to develop IT domain experts in emerging technology areas. In that program, technology vendors provide customized training in new technologies to MDIT employees.

    Culture Change

    The transition to a new model of governance and organization may entail significant cultural change in an organization unaccustomed to change. Some employees will get there; some will struggle. This can be especially true for mid-to-senior-level managers who achieved their management positions primarily on the basis of good technical skills.

    In Michigan, many IT employees were discouraged when they were moved from reporting to an agency to reporting into an IT organization. To address the problem, the state devoted significant effort to create a sense of community around the IT organization.

    These efforts included social gatherings to encourage informal conversations, and yearly leadership forums that brought together several hundred IT supervisors and managers. Town hall sessions are held twice a year to update employees on progress and future direction, and to give all employees an opportunity to interact with senior leadership. Newsletters and even T-shirts reinforce the new identity of the group. The organization was intentionally brought together by energy and enthusiasm.

    A Challenge and an Opportunity

    A critical shortage of IT workers looms on the horizon in many cities, counties, states and federal agencies. In Michigan, 26 percent of MDIT employees will be eligible for retirement over the next five years. Yet the retirement of baby boomers, and the resulting exodus of many existing government IT employees, also provides an enormous opportunity for public-sector organizations to reshape their work forces to better meet the new realities described.

    A serious commitment to training is also critical in making the transition work. Even with the challenges of very tight state budgets over the past four years, MDIT stepped up its training initiatives. These included: allocating specific training dollars per employee, requiring a training plan agreed to by the employee and manager, and technical training from vendor partners.

    The principal challenge of the next-generation IT organization is to move from the focused technical expertise of the past to a new blend of relationship, partnership, business and technical skills. As they embark on this transition, leaders must be considerate of the morale and enthusiasm of the public servants who developed and provided the services that citizens enjoy today.

    These individuals have chosen a career in public service -- as will many of the new employees that join them in the evolving IT organization. The leadership challenge is to increase the value of IT through this transformation to improve service to the citizen.

    Teri Takai  |  Special to Public CIO
    William D. Eggers  |  Contributing Writer