Our Next Act (Part I)

Divining lessons from our own back story.

by / May 12, 2004
Who am I? Why am I here? These questions were at the core of a midlife crisis suffered by public CIOs as their bosses lost elections, and government revenues and the technology sector's market capitalization tanked simultaneously at the dawn of the new millennium.

In the last 18 months, two-thirds of state CIOs turned over -- owing in large measure to an even greater number of governors who have left office in that time. The story is largely the same for other levels of government. Even by technology-sector standards, rookie CIOs are serving rookie CEOs who might benefit from a touch of institutional memory.

Launched a year ago, this journal has been deliberate in focusing forward on the favorite question of made-for-TV president Jeb Bartlett of the West Wing: What's next?

However, on our first anniversary, we take an indulgent glance in the rearview mirror -- to reflect on the rise of the public-sector CIO with a little help from people present at creation.

Though not an exhaustive list, consider these four seminal ideas of public-sector IT.

1. Competence and Credibility:
The two words became shorthand for everything the Cabinet-level IT agency did during Steve Kolodney's tenure as CIO of Washington state. Competence was the key operational test. Was the agency a trustworthy provider of reliable and resilient network and computing services to its customers at other public entities? Credibility went to the question of leadership. Had the agency earned the right to be heard by the governor, legislative leaders and other policy-makers? Each was necessary, but neither sufficient by itself. Both were the CIO's responsibility.

2. Innovation and Stability:
Larry Singer, former CIO of Georgia, once observed ebb and flow in public-sector IT that differentiated it from the private sector. Though the private technology sector relentlessly pursued innovation in the name of growth, the public sector needed seasons of stability between flashes of innovation. He also worried aloud that government's recent habit of relying on repurposing private-sector innovation rather than innovating itself may thwart forward movement. As the private sector becomes captive of next quarter's numbers rather than the long-term view, R&D diminishes.

3. Winning and Losing:
Long the holy grail of public-sector IT, governments continue to pursue operating efficiencies through consolidation even as shifting technological platforms challenge deeply embedded architectural assumptions. Rick Webb, North Carolina's former CIO, championed consolidation before consolidation was cool. Build shared infrastructure once, build it to last, build it to be nimble and build it to operate inexpensively -- and make it the option formerly discrete agencies can't afford not to adopt. This new build is not without hazards. Keith Comstock, former CTO of West Virginia, anticipates a precipitous fall-off in software costs and a painful fallout for customers who remain wedded to proprietary code in a decade of penny-pinching.

4. Risk, Reward and Relationships:
CIOs are creatures of their appointing authorities, who share the risk and rewards of the IT program -- including the difficult, uncertain work of system development and integration. The discipline of computer science and the rationality of databases ought not distract from the imperative that it's the relationships stupid. In the best relationships, CIOs and their partners take on heaven and earth -- confident in the political cover from a committed appointing authority. The liberty to push the envelope comes with an implied oath that if things come unglued, or if heat seekers fly too close to the sun, the CIO will accept their fate as carbon-based firewalls for the people who gave them wings.

In part II, we'll return our gaze to the road ahead and the enduring yet underdelivered promise that, to paraphrase MIT's Nicholas Negroponte, digits still want to commingle effortlessly.
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.