The joke wags make about CIO standing for "career is over" might be tired, but it's hard to argue otherwise when you look at the list of new names in state offices across the country. Since November 2002, more than half the states changed top IT officers, and current office holders aren't likely to be afforded any more stability than their predecessors.

With the nonstop roiling of CIO positions nationwide at all levels of government, it's important to consider how future public-sector IT managers and executives are being trained and educated to take over, and whether their skills will allow them to function more effectively in today's environment.

Sayonara CIOs

Like moles in a carnival game, CIOs are getting whacked, not because of incompetence or malfeasance, but because they're sticking their heads out and making targets of themselves. "CIOs are victims of their own success," said John Thomas Flynn, former CIO of California. "The technology manager in a public-sector jurisdiction used to be kind of invisible. They weren't a member of the senior staff. They weren't in with a seat at the table."

In the past decade, however, as technology has become more integrated with the inner workings of government, CIOs have taken on more prominent positions in the statehouse and federal offices -- a change Flynn favors. "The higher the position, the more it helps us CIOs get our job done because Lord knows that so often your staff and organization are so small, if you weren't a political appointee, you wouldn't have any clout at all."

But unfortunately as those positions have grown in stature, they've become less stable. "You see more and more that the governor is appointing that person," said Flynn. "And with that elevation and pre-eminence, you find you're now susceptible to changes in the whole political structure through the electoral process."

A new governor may have led to involuntary retirement for some CIOs, but others vacated office for personal and financial reasons. "The retirement benefits in my state and others are being reduced, so people are just making a structural decision to get out while the getting is good," said George Beard, director of the Electronic Government Program in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government's Executive Leadership Institute at Portland State University. Generally pay packages in the private market also outweigh those in the public sector.

In addition to less attractive salaries and benefits, public CIOs face pinched budgets in states desperate to balance their books, which means projects that aim to improve service tomorrow are often sidelined for today's more immediate needs.

Of greater concern for Beard, though, is what he refers to as "the year 2010 problem." "The leadership and management ranks of the public sector are populated by people in their late 40s, their 50s and even early 60s who are candidates to retire because they're in the last quartile of their career," he said. "You have a very large cohort in place that's ready to just go because of natural attrition. And in my state -- and I believe in all states -- there isn't a master strategy about how you find the replacement talent, about how you develop them and the kind of knowledge, skills and ability they need to be successful in the future."

The Education Process

Even without a "master strategy," education courses are available for CIO-wannabes who prefer to ply their skills for the public good. But as Paul Taylor, former deputy CIO of Washington state, points out, "The senior statesmen used to be people who spent a good part of their careers in and around state capitals. It was the capstone of one's career to become CIO, and that position went to those with an understanding of what working with the legislature is like, and how there are both possibilities and compromises in the public sector."

Currently, said Taylor, those responsible for education seem divided between creating public leaders who know about technology and technologists who know about government. "I'm hopeful that it's not really an either-or question," he added.

Beard said the difficulty of hammering down how to educate future CIOs can be blamed, in part, on a lack of vision in governments. "The majority of households and people in the United States now have routine access to the Internet," he said. "But other than creating Web sites, government has been very slow in developing a business strategy and model that takes advantage of the shift that has already occurred in the marketplace.

"In other words," Beard continued, "they tend to offer electronic government as an extension of the customary, over-the-counter, nine-to-five, Monday through Friday service offering rather than as a replacement channel to reduce a lot of the physical facility or material costs in government."

With that mindset among government employers, public policy and public administration curricula can hardly be blamed for creating graduates in a similar mold, but Beard said that won't be possible for much longer. "Frankly the budget crises in 47 states tell us that maybe we can't afford to pay for the physical model of government we've been working with and trying to perfect since the 19th century."

Coursework for Tomorrow's CIOs

One point that comes up again and again when talking about education is that while CIOs may be responsible for technology upgrades and innovations, they shouldn't dirty their fingers during installation. "There are technology refreshment courses they need," said Stephen Rohleder, group chief executive for global government practices at Accenture. "But the span of accountability for today's CIOs far outreaches their span of control. Because of that, they need to have specialized training in how to work in an influence model and build consensus across disparate organizations."

Courses in both written and oral communication are especially important, said Rohleder. "A good CIO has to be an effective public speaker because they become the spokesperson for government technology in general, and in some way, for the entire government," he said

Current CIO education programs are far more comprehensive than those of earlier years. In 1987, for example, Harvard University offered a collaborative research program called Strategic Computing that focused solely on teaching senior general management and senior technology management how to negotiate with one another when brought together on projects.

By contrast, Harvard's current E-Government Executive Education Project (3E), headquartered in its John F. Kennedy School of Government, provides less of a case-by-case approach and instead offers local workshops for up to 150 people from one institution, in many cases, using the technology being touted to augment the education process.

"Even if very senior leaders understand things, in government -- which is a commitment environment rather than a command-and-control environment -- you really need to educate the stakeholders who are going to mobilize to do things," said Jerry Mechling, director of the 3E Project. In Mechling's view, educating large groups from one institution, rather than merely a few individuals, encourages greater acceptance of technological advancements because of both the larger investment of time and funds, and the shared outlook of those involved.

The 3E Project offers no certificates or degrees, which Mechling said is because the course is constantly altered to account for fresh ideas. "For a law degree, a medical degree, or even a business degree, there's a much greater clarity as to what's core and what's peripheral, so you find that professional schools offer pretty much the same thing," he said. "I think the whole field of preparation for public service and public policy hasn't defined itself as specifically and as stably yet. To really integrate service -- to take the cost out of service, to add value through integrating service -- that requires pretty major institutional change, and those issues have not yet been well understood, let alone analyzed or run enough to have people confident as to what the right answers are."

A University of One's Own

Just as Harvard's 3E Project has gained definition over the years, CIO University -- a virtual consortium of universities run by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) -- has come a long way since its founding in 1997. At that time, the one-year-old CIO Council was working toward an understanding of the competencies needed to determine whether a CIO and his or her organization are successful.

Once Council members had a list of competencies in hand, Emory Miller, director of the GSA's Office of Professional Development, said he pulled together 100 members of government, industry and academia to turn those core competencies into learning objectives. Once established, Miller said, "we approached universities and asked whether they were willing to develop a program that would address these needs."

Today, CIO University consists of educational programs located at George Washington University, George Mason University, Carnegie Mellon University, La Salle University, Syracuse University, Loyola University Chicago and the University of Maryland University College. While the administration and actual education is handled privately by each university, CIO University provides the educational framework that holds everything together. "The academic communities tailored their programs to meet our competencies," said Miller. "And we've developed a timetable to determine when to modify the competencies, after which the universities modify their programs to match ours."

The basic CIO University program is modeled on the cohort concept of having industry and government experts together in classrooms to share their experiences for students, who tend to already hold senior executive positions. "This program isn't for someone coming straight off a bachelor's degree," said Miller. "If you're going to be a CIO or senior-level manager, you need more than the theoretical knowledge you'd learn in a classroom."

Andres Fortino, associate dean for academic development at the George Mason University School of Management, explained how the program works at George Mason: "Our Masters of Science in Technology Management program is based on our M.B.A. program of the basics of business -- economics, marketing, project management, finance, organizational behavior, teamwork -- but it also delves deeply into the issues a CIO confronts, such as determining best practices, using IT for strategic advantage and building business cases for IT solutions."

For their final project, students must pitch a business case in front of a group of executives. "They get grilled, and they learn how to make a case and pitch it effectively," said Fortino. "It's a wonderful process to see the transformation that takes place in them."

George Mason University also sends its students to Europe for an international residency. "They study innovation systems in the EU and its regulatory environment," said Fortino. "They study how governments promote the fusion of technology." This past summer, for example, European business leaders, politicians and academics told students how broadband technology is being incorporated across the continent.

The number of graduates who have received their CIO University certificate has risen from 18 in the class of 2000, to 39 in 2001, 94 in 2002, and 138 in 2003.

Officials in China and Japan contacted the GSA about joining CIO University, but the GSA only issued guidance on how those countries can start programs of their own. After all, any partnership with an outside nation would dilute the effectiveness of CIO University in the United States. "Both government and industry are learning from each other," said Miller. "Prior to CIO University, you had universities marketing to government as best they could, but now we've gone light years ahead in moving these communities together."

George Mason, for instance, had four graduating classes prior to becoming part of CIO University. After joining CIO University, Fortino said, "we began moving toward creating more executives and IT managers, basically those who fill the role of CIO." Fortino said they were pleased with the program because it was created by industry executives from companies that provide services to government, such as Booz Allen and BPG. "The program helps the government get exposure to a whole pool of potential candidates."

Education for All

Unlike CIO University and the 3E Project, the Information School at the University of Washington doesn't restrict its CIO-related education to those with work experience, instead inviting interested students of all ages and backgrounds.

Over the past five years, the school has tripled in size and currently boasts 500 students working toward degrees in either Master of Library and Information Science -- first established 90 years ago -- or the more modern Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM). "The MSIM program is designed specifically for people who aspire to eventually be CIOs," said Michael Eisenberg, dean of the Information School.

The research program covers everything from policy issues to hardcore tech skills, making it, in Eisenberg's words, "not just a part of computer science or the business school or public affairs, but a separate school that focuses on information as a discipline as well as a professional area. We like to think of ourselves as analogous to the CIO in an organization because the information function is more than merely setting up computers or databases. It's quite sophisticated, almost the lifeblood of the organization."

In addition to talking about possible special education opportunities for current CIOs, Eisenberg has also been negotiating with the University's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs to create a blended degree that would integrate the two fields even more closely. "It's not a competition," he said. "We're trying to work together because there's so much information out there, and it's the information that matters more than the technology."

The Road Ahead

That focus on information over technology will become even more important in the years ahead. "CIOs ought to have a good breadth of technological knowledge, but at heart they ought to be business people who know what business value is and how IT creates it," said Fortino. "They have to be able to articulate that when they do their homework, find a good solution and pitch it to their peers in management."

While holding positions that now depend more on political factors than success or failure, CIOs must also learn to both effectively build on the works of their predecessors and leave behind a structure their successors can add to rather than cast aside. If they don't, their value to administrative leaders will diminish, and they'll lose the status they've recently attained.

"It's utterly apparent to me that voters everywhere are pissed off because the cost of government to them is high," said Beard. "They're voting down revenue measures, have low confidence in government, and don't perceive value in what they get. To recapture that confidence, CIOs have to give people better value for their money and clearly explain what they're doing. It's that simple."

Linda Formichelli  |  Contributing Writer