At the dawn of the Information Age, government chief information officers (CIOs) and their equivalents are having a difficult time defining their roles. Without consensus on what a CIO should be doing, managing expectations is particularly difficult. Maybe that is why the country seems to have revolving doors on state capital CIO offices.

There are different directions a CIO's leadership and resource management can take. Roles range from the more traditional data processing to a policy development and management position not unlike a cabinet officer's job.

States, large counties and municipalities operate some of the largest data processing operations in the world. Because of the transaction volumes, the wide distribution of end users and the enormous amounts of data handled, operation of the networks and central processing centers is a senior management task of monumental proportions. There are large systems and operations staffs to be led, multi-million dollar budgets to be managed and a continuous series of crises to keep even the finest managers hopping.

In the last five to seven years, individual workgroups have been developing LAN-based systems to support more and more of their automation needs. These local systems have become the repository of a significant percentage of the public entity's data stores and business rules. That has left many public entities with islands of stand-alone systems that make access to that local information nearly impossible for those outside the workgroups.

In addition to overcoming the challenge of managing the end-user computing environment, there is the issue of keeping those local systems operating and available to those who have become dependent on them. Developing and winning adherence to standards while providing technical support across a widespread organization is a critical management role.

Helping governors as well as agency and department directors understand the information needs embedded in their policy options -- and the costs and issues associated with effectively meeting those needs -- is also a critical role for an enlightened information resources manager.

For the first time in American history, infrastructure is largely being provided by private-sector interests rather than departments of transportation, civil engineering and agriculture. The good news is that telcos, cable companies and utilities are assuming the risks and costs of laying fiber-optic lines and providing network and Internet access for today's highways of commercial activity.

However, traditional issues of assuring fair access to all who need it, controlling market excesses and promoting the public good are not usually prime considerations of private-sector organizations.

The availability of an educated workforce, and tax policies that promote investment in infrastructure -- including environmental policies -- are all policy issues that require technology insight.

The National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE) is an organization in transition, precisely because state governments have not come to any consensus on which of the above responsibilities belong to the CIO.

Traditionally, NASIRE members were data center managers with responsibility for only the first set of issues described above. This position earned the scorn of advocates of end-user computing. The central MIS organizations they ran were widely viewed as barriers to utilization of IT, not enablers of it.

In recent years NASIRE began seeking people who ran IT standards groups or who had oversight over IT budgets and so-called state strategic plans. The groups these folks led were also seen as controlling bottlenecks. At last fall's annual NASIRE conference there were 42 states represented (a record number) and almost half those states had representatives participating in their first conference.

The subject of the meeting was technology and economic development. While the effort was valiant, I don't believe a single attendee had economic development responsibilities.

Sessions focusing on project management, organizational theory and more day-to-day management issues had the most relevance to most of the attendees.

Larry Singer  |  Contributing Writer