Living Large

For CIOs, it's not too late to engage early.

by / February 2, 2007
What to do with a moment like this? Govs. Spitzer (N.Y.), Ritter (Colo.), Strickland (Ohio), Patrick (Mass.), O'Malley (Md.), Beebe (Ark.) and Crist (Fla.) have been in office for one month. Returning administrations in 29 other states are also preparing for a new term with new priorities, and an eye on shaping their legacies.

It is no time to rest on laurels despite a tendency among public CIOs to point with pride to consolidated infrastructures, service-oriented architectures, secure applications, and an unbeatable governance structure. It was hard work. It created a nimble and robust digital platform for governing -- but it's simply not enough.
At issue is the realization that this decade will go down as a time during which analog governments ran on a digital foundation. Whatever your metric -- citizen satisfaction, return on investment, or the elusive quality of transformation -- we're simply not done.

The blocking and tackling of government modernization must continue on infrastructure, architecture and applications as they remain a work in progress in most jurisdictions. But by itself, more of the same will not get it done.

One of the chief benefits of having CIOs on the governor's Cabinet is that Cabinet members own the legacy information systems that administer vital public services and face growing transaction volumes as demand for services increases. By extension, they control the processes those systems automate, and are responsible to their respective legislatures for meeting the public mission.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, these executives are also uniquely positioned to know how much money flows through these systems, and what the cost per unit of service is. Those costs are higher than they should be precisely because unreformed analog-era processes are running on digital platforms. Second only to the governor and legislative leadership, Cabinet-level system owners will determine whether and to what degree this process-platform conflict will be redressed.

The challenge and opportunity for public CIOs is to get their Cabinet colleagues to see the shared purpose of changing the cost structure of government by transforming the way the public's business is done. Together they must decide whether to use the current cyclical uptick in government revenues for a modest increase in services at the old analog rate, or exponentially more flexibility and service delivery capacity at the new lower digital rate.

It won't be easy, but the right things rarely are and require CIOs to overcome a discernable bias in their own thinking. There has been a tendency to marginalize legacy systems as targets for blame and replacement with the effect of declaring the agency heads that own legacy systems as enemies of modernization. Agency directors can be excused for not feeling enthusiastic about being earnest partners in this effort if they expect a tin ear reception to their pleas for extending the systems' life and value -- whatever their age -- that are uniquely able to administer complex public programs.

There are models that extend beyond a conventional understanding of partnerships to a stance more akin to shared ownership. Consider unilateral executive branch changes in Washington state where the balance shifted from legislative intent, in which the "primary responsibility for ... information systems ... rests with each agency head" to one in which the CIO-led agency "is now jointly accountable for the success of major state computer system implementations, along with the agencies that develop the systems." Likewise, the shared services model helpfully delineates between infrastructures that can and should be used across agencies to achieve economies of scale and those that are application- or agency-specific.

Both developments may be helpful at the implementation and operations stages. They are necessary but not sufficient to realize the potential of the moment. The larger benefit -- that transformational moment -- happens much earlier in the life cycle, before a single line of code is cut or a clever acronym chosen. It begins in the green field of the mind, where two or more Cabinet colleagues talk about ideas, scribble on napkins, and debate the answer to the question, what if?
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.