Technology increasingly is seen as a weapon in government’s arsenal to cut costs and increase efficiency. As such, it might seem a matter of course that cities and counties would have a CIO — someone to provide direction on technology policy and advocate for it at an executive level. But the reality is that many municipalities don’t have a C-level technology leader. For myriad reasons, many depend instead on IT directors, systems administrators — and even city managers — to formulate technology policy and implement technology initiatives.

Take Jeff Schefke. As IT director of Oak Park, Mich., a Detroit suburb of 30,000, Schefke confronts daily a challenge shared by many of his counterparts nationwide: managing his city’s technology efforts without a CIO at the helm. He has the added challenge of running the city’s IT by himself — Schefke is a one-man IT shop.

But Schefke, who’s been IT director for five years, will tell you he’s not doing much “running” when it comes to supporting the city’s 125 users. Instead, he spends most of his time maintaining and putting out fires. Oak Park, he said, still depends on a now-ancient AS/400 system, and it’s all Schefke can do to keep the city’s technology infrastructure from imploding. 

“There are always things that come up that require me to fix them, but not [allow me] to make them better or more efficient,” Schefke said, adding that he simply doesn’t have the time to concentrate on anything other than staving off disaster. “If I could sit down for one or two days to do something — well, that would never happen.”

Oak Park is like many cities that don’t routinely make headlines for technology initiatives. In these places there’s often a person like Schefke, frantically working behind the scenes to keep a semblance of normalcy. There is no CIO. There is only a handful of people — or just one person — who have a CIO’s responsibilities but none of a CIO’s authority.

“I’d like to say [my position] is like a CIO,” Schefke said. “I’m responsible for trying to push things through. The difficulty I have is our city does not see technology as a help. They just continue to cut it. They don’t ask IT’s opinion on things until it’s already purchased or it’s going to be implemented.”

Cost is often cited as a reason that a city or county has no CIO. Many CIOs earn relatively handsome salaries, and the current economic climate can make it tough to pay that cost. Population is another factor; some cities or counties are simply too small to support such a position. Still others argue that they simply don’t need or want one.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of history, said Alan Shark, executive director and CEO of the Public Technology Institute. “When we look at how city and county governments were organized, there was no such thing as a CIO, and that’s why you have so many good people who are still directors of [management information systems] and technology services,” he said. “In the enterprise, whether it’s large or small, if an individual is looked upon as being the head of the support staff, then that is not a CIO position.”

Shark also believes that local government leaders often lack a good grasp of what exactly a CIO does, making the decision to hire one less likely.

“It’s interesting because of all the positions in city government, this is the one that people are most uncomfortable with,” Shark said. “The example that I use is if you need a new finance director, you know exactly what to look for. If you need someone in purchasing or a city attorney, those positions have been around for so long, there’s no question what to look for. When it comes to the chief technology person or whatever the title, that really freaks people out.”

There is another scenario that likely plays out in many cities and counties, which is that there may be a CIO, only sans the title. The CIO’s role has evolved, and for many the job requirements of CIO differ. For some on the leading edge, the CIO is a leader first and a technologist second or third. But there are still numerous CIOs whose primary duty is keeping systems running and playing nice together. In that space is where one is apt to find someone who works like a CIO but without the title and salary.

CIO-less and Loving It

In Folsom, Calif., technology is ever-present. The Sacramento suburb of 72,000 is home to a vast, 6,500-employee Intel campus; the state’s electric grid manager, known as the California Independent System Operator; and even the corporate headquarters of several trade magazines focused on technology in government. Yet Folsom lacks a CIO. Instead, the city’s top technology position is that of information systems supervisor, which like in many cities, is a function of the finance department.

Folsom seems like the ideal city in which to find a CIO. The city is steadily growing, in the black financially, near the state capital and, besides being a home to Intel, there are many regional outlets of Silicon Valley tech giants nearby. But according to Evert Palmer, Folsom’s newly appointed city manager, IT leadership in the city is a mid-management position, one that he held years back.

“We build our technology systems from the ground up, and a lot of the technology initiatives are generated within the individual general business units,” Palmer said. “That’s just the way I’ve always seen it most effective. Governments of this size are more like 16 verticals that you’re trying to hold together as opposed to one big manufacturing company that has a supply chain issue that runs through the organization.”

On whether Folsom would be better off with a CIO, Palmer said he did not think so, for the time being anyway. Palmer said that his seat at the executive table means most of the city’s technology initiatives are really driven by him and not by the City Council. Folsom, he contended, has historically been more concerned with public services and the availability of information, but not necessarily technology platforms and products. City officials, he said, have taken an “if it ain’t broke” position and have yet to express dissatisfaction with the types and quantity of services currently offered.

Palmer also believes that despite all the benefits technology can bring to a city, some people are still a bit old fashioned and prefer to be out and about in the community. He cited the fact that Folsom still operates a busy counter at City Hall, where people regularly come in to make utility payments or take care of other city business. The problem with that example is that a busy counter at City Hall could be attributed not to a traditionalist citizenry, but to inadequate online services.

While Palmer said he could see the city one day hiring a CIO, for now he believes the resources to make that happen would be better utilized elsewhere.

“I am not sure on a day-by-day basis, Folsom would necessarily benefit from that any more than we would benefit from having an extra police officer, firefighter or garbage truck driver on the street actually doing the work that most people interface with.”

Lady Luck Has Left the Building  

While Folsom prefers to get by with an IT supervisor and a tech-savvy city manager, other cities have suffered mightily over the years and have seen staff meet the ax with alarming regularity. Not long ago, North Las Vegas was a booming byproduct of the housing craze. But the bursting bubble was particularly disastrous for the city. Budget projections suggest the city could face a $39 million deficit in two years, according to the Las Vegas Sun. And the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that the city falls $165,000 further in the hole each week.

Al Noyola is North Las Vegas’ acting finance director and is in the unenviable position of trying to keep the city solvent to avoid having the state take over the city’s books. Noyola said that even if the city wanted a CIO, such a position would be out of the question.

Several years ago, North Las Vegas IT was under the direction of the finance department. When the good times started, the city decided to upgrade and hired an IT manager — but not a CIO.

“We had an IT manager who had fairly good technical skill sets,” Noyola recalled. “I wouldn’t call her a hardcore technician that was brought up in the traditional IT world, but certainly someone with a fairly good understanding of general IT operations.” As the city grew, complexity grew, he said; the city hired its first IT director, and in doing so, helped to modernize the infrastructure throughout the city.

For a few years, things were going swimmingly. Then when the recession hit, numerous city positions were suddenly in jeopardy. Noyola said the IT manager voluntarily retired and since then, the city has reverted to its former IT administrative structure — meaning Noyola is now in charge of IT policy. Fortunately Noyola’s past experience included a lot of work with IT projects at the federal and local levels. And while he admits he’s by no means a CIO-level technologist, Noyola believes he can at least help the city get by on technology issues. He also said that some of the IT manager’s staff has remained, and he works closely with them and other area CIOs.

The loss of human capital in North Las Vegas is one casualty of the recession. The other is that technology refreshes are off the table. For the foreseeable future, Noyola said the city will be making do with what it has.

“We are going to try to keep [systems] going as long as possible. If there’s some major catastrophic issue that occurs, we’ll just have to replace it,” Noyola said. “We’re really pressing the envelope, as I suspect is the trend in most areas, as decreasing financial budgets don’t allow for refreshing technology to the degree that we used to in the past.”

He said the management focus has changed from staying abreast of the latest and greatest and following a replacement schedule of every four years to now, determining how they can keep things going and making changes within their capability to bridge the gap between what the system can do and what they would like it to do in the future.

North Las Vegas is not alone. Cleveland lost its CTO to economic turmoil. To counter that loss, city officials established an IT council to help develop and implement technology policy.

“While we previously had a CTO, the search to fill that position stalled as we continue to face budget challenges in this global economic crisis,” said Maureen R. Harper, Cleveland’s chief of communications, in an email. “We’re considering filling that position sometime in the future. However, Cleveland has an IT division that reports up to the finance director, a member of the mayor’s executive team. In addition, the city does have an IT strategic council that does review technology issues, requests, infrastructure needs, etc.”

If Tomorrow Ever Comes

Presuming that one day the recession ends and prosperity returns, how will cities that have managed without a CIO respond? Will a CIO hiring binge follow? Or will cities be more thoughtful about what drives the need for a chief information officer? And is having a CIO purely a function of a city’s size?

“I don’t think [hiring a CIO] is necessarily driven by population of the municipality as it is driven by the complexity of the system,” Noyola said.

Palmer echoed Noyola’s sentiment, suggesting that the scope of a city’s enterprise may justify a CIO going forward. Comparing Folsom to neighboring Roseville, a city of 120,000, Palmer said relative growth in complexity might be what makes having a CIO a good business decision, but he admitted that city size alone is not enough to make a determination.

“Roseville is about twice our size from an organizational perspective, so I would say somewhere in that is the tipping point, between our 450 employees and their 1,200 or so,” Palmer said. “It is a tough question to answer because there are a lot of variables in it.”

While many cities continue to struggle financially — and as a result, technologically — others may be starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Cape Girardeau, a city of 40,000 in southeastern Missouri, has started planning what it wants from a CIO when it’s able to afford one.

“We’ve struggled with some IT issues as we have tried to update and accelerate the processes within city government and services,” said City Manager Scott Meyer. “We’ve just gone through a brainstorming session with our management team and have identified a CIO type of manager as a solution we wish to implement. In order for us to improve our processes and support the technology, website, phone system and fiber/radio infrastructure, it is necessary for us to invest in a professional CIO.”

But for many IT directors and system administrators, the ongoing budget grind means more work, fewer resources and no one to advocate technology solutions other than themselves — and that’s if there’s anyone willing to listen. Schefke, at least, tries to keep a positive outlook.

“The good part is the days go by fast,” he said.

Chad Vander Veen  |  Associate Editor