When the Boeing Co. met with Chicago officials about moving its corporate headquarters to the city, one of those at the table was CIO Christopher O'Brien. Running point for Mayor Richard Daley's ambitious technology agenda, O'Brien helped sell the aerospace giant on Chicago's credentials for the Internet economy.

"One of the things we really wanted to do was show that this is a city government that is modern and efficient," said O'Brien. "Mayor Daley promotes the use of technology to improve government operations and quality of life in the region. My role was to show that it isn't just talk."

That's a role that O'Brien and other CIOs say they are playing more often. O'Brien estimates that he spends a fifth of his time promoting Chicago's growing technology prowess to business leaders, community groups and news media.

In negotiations with Boeing, for example, he highlighted Chicago's GIS-based tools for locating available office space, electronic permitting applications for speeding dealings with city regulatory agencies and a nationally recognized 311 telephone system for connecting citizens with non-emergency city services. But perhaps the biggest draw for Boeing was CivicNet, a sprawling public/private initiative to run high-speed fiber-optic cable to every Chicago neighborhood.

"I think CivicNet appealed to them - the fact that we are looking to wire the city and provide broadband services not only to all businesses, but also to homes and communities," O'Brien said. "This is a major step forward. It shows that Mayor Daley is willing to take risks in promoting technology and making it happen."

O'Brien said CIOs are ideally positioned to paint the big picture of their jurisdiction's technical capabilities.

"The CIO is one of the very few government officials that has an enterprise-wide scope. Specific agency heads are well versed in their own area of expertise. But myself and my staff are working in all of these departments, so we understand how it all fits together," he said. "The investments that we've made in technology over the past five years have been responsible for some big improvements in service. Somebody who understands that needs to get out and communicate that message."

Ultimately, that message helped convince Boeing to move 500 top corporate staff members into a downtown Chicago office tower. Officials contend the $51-billion company's decision to locate its world headquarters in Chicago - over competing offers from Dallas and Denver - helps cement the city's status as a business capital.

At the Forefront

O'Brien is not the only CIO who's spending more time marketing his jurisdiction to potential employers. Formal economic development responsibilities are part of the job for secretaries of technology in Virginia and Colorado. And to varying degrees, similar tasks are creeping onto the to-do lists of top technology officers in other states as well.

Aldona Valicenti, Kentucky CIO and chairwoman of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), said CIOs find themselves at the forefront of technology issues that are critically important to industry. For example, government Web sites and electronic services - the primary responsibility for most government CIOs - often form the first impression of a state for prospective employers. CIOs also spearhead development of statewide privacy and security policies that broadly impact businesses.

High-level CIO involvement in these matters signals a commitment to the Internet economy, Valicenti said. "It's an indication of how savvy the state is. I think [companies] look to the state's Web site to see how the state does business. If it does no transactions electronically, the conclusion many times is this state is not going to be easy to work with from a regulatory perspective."

The same is true on the local level, according to David Molchany, CIO of Fairfax County, Va. He said business leaders seek electronic transactions that

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  | 

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic.