As a group, public CIOs tend not to be a sanguine bunch. For good reason. They've busted their picks on the hard work of consolidation, collaboration and customer service only to learn these core competencies aren't sufficient -- though necessary -- in the new, meaner, leaner environment.

Some in the IT punditocracy recommend changing the definition of the CIO's middle initial from "information" to infrastructure, innovation or inspiration. In light of current economic conditions, others want the CIO to be chief savings officer -- a different set of three-letter initials.

This expectations game is one worth winning, but it's different from the existential angst nearly 10 years ago when the CIO's role was in doubt.

The Center for Digital Government just revisited turn-of-the-century benchmarking of state CIOs' span of control. The results show that on seven vital attributes, CIOs stand as a group, on firmer ground than they did in 2001.

CIOs' Span of Control: 2001 and 2008

1. The state CIO is a Cabinet-level official. In 2001: 54% In 2008: 59%

2. An IT commission, board or council provides comprehensive policy direction and oversight of large, high-risk projects on an enterprise basis. In 2001: 72% In 2008: 72%

3. The state CIO has statewide policy-setting authority, either alone or in conjunction with the board. In 2001: 84% In 2008: 93%

4. The state CIO has operational responsibilities for computing and telecommunications through the state technology agency. In 2001: 74% In 2008: 83%

5. The state CIO has enterprisewide authority over IT project management. In 2001: 68% In 2008: 68%

6. The state CIO has enterprise IT budget authority. In 2001: 38% In 2008: 46%

7. The state CIO has IT procurement authority. In 2001: 72% In 2008: 68%

Since 2001, a couple more state CIOs earned a place at the Cabinet table, while almost 10 percent gained in authority over policy setting and operations. Structures around project oversight and management remain unchanged over the decade. Despite an 8 percent gain, only 46 percent of state CIOs have enterprise budget authority. They've also ground in their influence over IT procurement, which is perhaps only a symptom of chronic dysfunction rather than a cause.

CIOs' span of control also grew organically with the rise of "mini Cs" -- chief technology officers (CTOs), chief information security officers, chief architectural officers, etc. Virginia recently appointed what seems to be the nation's first chief applications officer to bring the same level of the executive focus to enterprise applications as CTOs bring to enterprise infrastructure. To be clear, many CIOs shoulder components of these roles by themselves, but the rise of "mini Cs" acknowledges the rise of seeming allies to the CIO.

But are these other "Cs" colleagues, solely deputies or potential usurpers? Consider a transition report prepared for the Obama administration by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy group that argues cyber-security is too important to be delegated to the CIO. It's a shot across the bow of the incumbent CIO class and points to the risk of displacement.

Function-by-function displacement would erode the relatively strong structural position that CIOs now enjoy. The existential question now is whether and how CIOs can exploit their platform to address the big problems of this moment.

A choice is coming as talk intensifies about economic stimulus, reform and public works. CIOs can keep their hard-earned place at the table and expand their wheelhouse to include technologies and leadership challenges. Or they can take a heads-down operational tack and return to their role's origin as an extension of the finance function -- where the incumbent CIO was responsible for the care and feeding of the accounting systems.

What will you do? What have you done lately?

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer