"There are two ways to lose in this business," an old friend once said about being a public CIO.

The first is losing well -- getting run out of town because you championed ideas that were ahead of their time (and at odds with entrenched interests). The second is losing poorly -- messing with the books or the law.

In the volatile 12 months just past, public CIOs spent too many news cycles in the headlines amid allegations of impropriety. (Sorting the clippings may require a third category for random acts of stupidity or poor judgment -- more on that later.)

Instead of an exit interview, many public CIOs face exit investigations -- a final flurry of forensic activity into the CIO's actions while in office. Whether benign or malicious in motivation, the official poking and prodding underscores the importance of setting as few traps for oneself as possible.

A public CIO's return to private life -- or more properly in many cases, the private sector -- is not surprising, nor illegal or unethical. Such a career path, however, invites intense scrutiny over how taxpayer money was spent under the CIO's watch.

Florida's Roy Cales and California's Elias Cortez have become poster children for the dubious second category, following unfavorable audit findings in their respective states.

According to his own Weblog, former Utah CIO Phil Windley contends that audits were used as political instruments for settling old scores with the administration. (The Associated Press reported on the state auditor's finding of favoritism in Windley's hiring people who worked with him in the private sector.)

Winning is still preferred, but there is no shame in losing well. Losing poorly is another story because the inherent breaking of public trust unavoidably splashes on others who serve as CIOs. Conflict of interest rules and financial disclosure requirements are necessary but insufficient in safeguarding the reputation of CIOs in public service.

Despite platitudes to the contrary, public CIOs have not yet coalesced as a community. Rather, they are free agents operating independently under a three-letter franchise. How else do you explain a culture that is officially condemning but practically ambivalent toward those in their number who look like they were dressed by vendors? Logo-emblazoned clothing transmits the message, "I'm not a jackass, but I play one on the golf course."

Feeling no particular affinity for a wider community while in public service, free agency is apparently unrestrained when the appointing authority's tether is cut.

Witness the pre-emptive media strike against his governor by former Arkansas CIO Randall Bradford on the day he was to be fired. It may have been cathartic, but it betrays an entitlement view of appointed service that simply does not exist in the phrase, "serving at the pleasure of the governor."

Then there's the just plain odd. Even Windley is having a hard time explaining what he did late one Thursday evening. Out of a sense of curiosity, he visited his old state portal riding a piece of security software, which he concedes he didn't know how to drive. The misguided experiment begat a security fire drill by the state's portal operators, which begat a public apology for being a "bonehead."

Neither were great days for the CIO alumni association.

Windley's Weblog runs under the mantra, "organizations usually get the IT they deserve."

That's also true of public CIOs when it comes to their credibility and reputation.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer