As an IT professional, you might be a Microsoft Certified System Engineer, or you might have completed a rigorous course in security and privacy. But it's rare to find an IT professional who holds one document that pronounces him or her a "certified CIO" -- and even rarer to find a statement on an education certificate indicating a specialty in government IT.

In the future, however, "certified public CIO" could become a more common designation. The Center for Public Technology (CPT) at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, recently entered the third year of its CIO Certification Program for local governments, and it has just launched a second version of the course for IT professionals in state government.

Another emerging school is the Florida Institute of Government (IOG) at Florida State University, Tallahassee, which started a certification program for local CIOs in 2006. IOG officials also hope to add a version for state IT employees.

Each school is working with a national organization to create a certification program for current and aspiring government CIOs across the country.

"The demand is just incredible," said Lee Mandell, director of IT and research and CIO of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, and a guest instructor in the UNC program. That, he said, is because there are so few formal programs that teach the management skills one needs to succeed as a CIO -- "communication skills, budgeting skills -- you name it -- the kinds of things that are not taught when you're in a computer science class."

But the North Carolina and Florida programs aren't the first to offer specialty courses for CIO professional development. CIO University, developed by the federal government's CIO Council and run by the General Services Administration (GSA), was launched in 2000. Offered in partnership with the universities of Syracuse, George Mason, George Washington, Carnegie Mellon, LaSalle, and the University of Maryland University College, the CIO University certificate program provides training in areas the federal CIO Council considers essential competencies for a CIO working in the federal government.

"We want to make sure the federal government has a cadre of highly capable professionals with mission-critical competencies to meet agency goals," said Monica Fitzgerald, director of CIO University and program manager for IT Workforce, Office of Technology Strategy in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the GSA.

CIOs in the Classroom

CIO University is open to IT professionals in all levels of government and in the private sector. Students enroll in programs designed by individual universities, such as Carnegie Mellon's Chief Information Officer Certificate Program or George Mason's Master of Science in Technology Management. Upon completing the program, along with credits or a degree from the university, the student gets a certificate from the government.

Since 2000, 770 people have received the certificate, which Fitzgerald cautions is not the same as a professional certification. "When we talk about certification, it's almost like you have a license of some sort," she said, noting CIO University isn't the one that bestows the certificates. CIO University participation has grown since 2000, when the program only handed out 18 certificates. In 2006, it awarded 171.

About 40 percent of the students who enroll in the program are government employees. Probably the most prominent graduate from CIO University is Barry West, who previously served as CIO of the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and who was appointed CIO of the U.S. Department of Commerce in June 2006.

Local CIOs Like UNC

At UNC, the CIO certification program for local government has graduated two classes and started teaching a third in January 2006. Originally designed for IT professionals employed by communities in North Carolina, the one-year program has accepted several out-of-state students, including four in this year's cohort. That's prompted Shannon Schelin, director of the CPT, who teaches the bulk of the course, to revise the section on acquisitions management. "That one piece had to be tailored a little more openly now," she said, adding that it had to be widened to include general contracting issues rather than just North Carolina purchasing law.

The curriculum mainly covers management issues such as communication, finance, projects, risk and change management.

The new course for North Carolina state employees started on Feb. 8, 2006, with 24 students. It is similar to the local government course, however, Schelin said, it may be tailored to fit requirements set by the state Legislature. "We'll probably focus a little more on cost accounting for IT projects."

The nationwide course, due to launch in June, is the result of a partnership between the CPT and Government Management Information Sciences International (GMIS), a membership organization for government IT professionals.

GMIS wants to offer a certification program as a benefit to its members, said Joe Turner, director of management information systems for New Britain, Conn., and executive director of GMIS. "We think it's important for our members to all have the same skill sets," he explained. "If they have that certification process, we believe not only will they learn a lot, but they will have a transferable skill."

The plan is to start and end the course with two face-to-face meetings, one at the GMIS annual conference in Reno, Nev., this June, and one at the 2008 conference. "The rest will be delivered online, synchronously and asynchronously," Schelin said.

Florida's New Program

In Florida, the IOG's CIO certification program is in its first cycle, with 30 students enrolled. The course includes four 20-hour workshops, with 10 hours of independent work before each session and 10 hours after. Each student will also spend 60 to 80 hours on a capstone project, applying knowledge gained in the course to real-life issues in his or her organization.

"Each of these products will be shared with other people in the class," said Ric Dugger, director of Information Services Management and Technology Integration at the Florida IOG. "We're going to be creating a library of samples, showing how their peers are dealing with various issues."

To minimize travel for participants, Dugger said, the IOG is holding two of the workshops at the two annual conferences sponsored by the Florida Local Government Information Systems Association. The other sessions meet in Orlando, Fla.

The IOG divides the course into two components. The first certifies the student as a technology manager, and the second offers a credential that depends on the size of the student's organization. "If you have less than five people working for you when you go through that certification process, you would get a certification called 'Certified Chief Technology Officer' [CTO] rather than 'Certified Chief Information Officer,'" Dugger said, adding that class work for the two designations is identical, but capstone projects pursued in small municipal governments naturally will differ from those conducted in larger city or county governments.

Officials with state government agencies have approached the IOG about creating a similar course tailored for state agency IT professionals, Dugger said. "We're looking at beginning to frame what would need to be different."

The IOG is also working with Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Institute (PTI) to develop a version of the local government CIO program to be delivered nationwide. The need for such a program is significant because in recent years, more people have held the CIO title and function than ever before, said Alan Shark, executive director of PTI. The organization had started planning a certification program of its own when it discovered the IOG's course, and the two groups decided to join forces.

Although the program is still in the planning stages, Shark said PTI might conduct the program online, using GoGov TV, a new Internet protocol television service PTI is launching in partnership with Communications Technologies of Chantilly, Va.

The national program also has two components, the first focuses on overall technological competency, and the second leads to certification as either a CTO or a CIO. The CTO track will provide more in-depth understanding of the various technologies a government IT department might support -- such as wireless, video and broadband systems and a host of applications packages, Shark said. The CIO track is similar, "but the focus there is on management and leadership, because we're finding that at that level, the skills sets that are needed are a little different."

Disagreement on Demand

Although Florida's IOG and North Carolina's CPT are both targeting state IT professionals, not everyone agrees there's as much demand for such training at the state level as there is in local government. Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), said he hasn't seen a lot of interest in CIO certification among state IT officials.

NASCIO's members certainly value opportunities for professional development, mentoring and networking, Robinson said. But, he countered, "I don't think any of [the CIOs] believe they will get it through formal classroom training."

To George Beard, founder of the GovernmentWise consultancy and adjunct assistant professor at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, a CIO certification program, while useful, doesn't speak to what government really needs from its IT leadership. With the worsening fiscal condition of the country pushing governments toward bankruptcy, and with hordes of experienced employees nearing retirement, governments need to get serious about aggressively managing innovation, he said. They must start using technology to drastically change the way they do business. "We have got to infuse our public enterprises with men and women who are not in fact just CTOs or CIOS, but chief innovation officers."

Simply sending technology specialists to a CIO academy to teach them management skills is not enough, Beard said. He said the key is "reconstituting the role and the expectation of the CIO with a particular emphasis on innovation -- not on running computer networks and managing technical staff, but getting Woody Allen-anxious about how the hell we're going to stay in business."

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer