Our Next Act (Part II)

Reclaiming oxygen for the journey ahead.

by / August 11, 2004
We left our story in the last issue of Government Technology's Public CIO with the proposition that CIOs are creatures of their appointing authorities. Specifically, "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, CIOs will accept their fate as carbon-based firewalls for the people who gave them wings."

As if to illustrate the point, news came as the ink was drying on words that Tennessee CIO Richard Rognehaugh stepped down. Rognehaugh was appointed late in the previous administration. With a change in both personality and party in the Governor's Office, differences emerged on the role and independence of the state IT program. Then there was the matter of a $60 million client eligibility system that ran into trouble. Gov. Phil Bredesen told The Tennessean, "Sometimes ... it's best to change horses -- and try to find some new leadership."

As this issue was going to press, Washington state CIO Stuart McKee announced he was leaving his post. McKee began plotting his return to the technology industry when Gov. Gary Locke announced he would not seek a third term. Even without a change in party, McKee faced a difficult transition in 2005. The state has its share of difficult IT projects, but none escalated to the point of career-defining trouble. The greatest liability was turf. McKee, to his credit, was zealous in defending the state IT agency's independence and gains made through disruptive technologies. It was a stance that did not make him universally popular with the central budget office.

Rognehaugh and McKee join a disturbingly long list of public CIOs for whom the next act is in the private sector. Since 2000, the wholesale changing of horses has proven to be at least equal parts problem and solution for what is euphemistically known as the public-sector IT community. CIO turnover has created churn in strategy, direction and stewardship of individual initiatives. Predictably there are complaints about rudderlessness in affected IT programs, and open questioning of whether the CIO deserves a seat at the Cabinet table.

Earlier in this issue, Struckman and Struckman recommended that public CIOs apply the Paredo rule to their work, dedicating 80 percent of their effort to leadership and 20 percent to management.

Good management alone can only perpetuate the current state of affairs, described by one long-time practitioner as "devoid of oxygen." To meet the challenges of the millennium date field change, many jurisdictions set a precedent for freezing work on everything except Y2K remediation. Then came the revenue recession freeze. Now single development projects are sucking up all the oxygen in some jurisdictions -- choking off innovation and even operations vital to doing the public's business.

To influence the view of governing held by their appointing authorities, colleagues and customers -- and to convince them to invest their political capital -- CIOs need to extend their reach more:

?Broadly: See to the edges of the enterprise (or federation); understand the implications of the next decision on the wider technological ecosystem; and develop and work a dynamic transformation strategy.

?Coherently: Provide context for the next new thing; show how it fits with existing systems and infrastructure; demonstrate the continuity among apparently discrete three-letter acronyms (ERP, CRM, ECM, BPM); and prove that the effect of the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

?Deeply: Wean dependence from narrow ROI analysis that may be blinded by a control agency's assumptions or inherent limitations; establish sophisticated financial analysis with a transformational emphasis as a core discipline within IT planning; and dare to compare costs among service channels, cannibalizing old assets that have become liabilities.

?Confidently: Be somebody's Val Oveson (Utah's CIO) by taking and celebrating risks, and drawing on the optimism deeply rooted in both computer science and the American experiment.

On the last point, essayist David Brooks captures the essence of the oxygen needed for the journey ahead: "We live constantly in the shadow of the future, trusting that tomorrow's world will be better and redeem the incompleteness of the present."
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.