The CIO's New Clothes

With apologies to Hans Christian Andersen and former CIOs everywhere

by / April 28, 2003
Once upon a time there lived emperors in many lands -- some as small as parishes and towns, some as large as countries, and others in the middle (states, territories, and the biggest of cities and counties). They surrounded themselves with both trusted advisers and doers of deeds.

The emperors believed clothes made the man (and with notable exceptions, it was mostly men). Although they were rarely in the public eye, their prime ministers were draped in authority -- the gold strands from the treasury for the keeper of the budget, and strands drawn from across government's patchwork quilt for the chief of staff.

Emperors had a changeable cast of characters who they loved to show off to their people. For almost a decade, technology mystics were dressed in fabric that glistened like silicon and were bestowed with the title of CIO. In time, it became less popular for an emperor to be seen in public with his CIO -- the result of shrinking treasuries, inner circles that were hard to crack and remained by invitation only, and a little boredom with last year's fashions. The trends had shifted in favor of military dress with perfectly pressed creases, which symbolized the promise of securing the homeland (although without a little added gold, these advisers will not be long for public prominence either).

Word of the emperors' changing tastes spread across all their kingdoms and beyond. The shift meant untold opportunity for some, and doom for others.

As in all tales of good and evil, scoundrels converged on palace gates everywhere with their next new scheme in hand. "We are the finest of designers, and after many years of research, we have invented an extraordinary method to weave new suits for a new generation of chiefs -- those of technology, information security, privacy, architecture and (ahem) strategy." They continued mischievously, "The true value of these new suits is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate their quality."

The scoundrels' dirty secret was that these new suits were weaved with material stolen from the cloaks of the CIOs, leaving them threadbare in sometimes dangerous woods where fires burned fast and hot. In so doing, the apparent decentralizing of authority with these new suits for fragmented Cs was actually concentrating power back in the treasury -- the very place from which CIOs and the emperors helped rescue technology not long before.

Even now, the farce continues according to the scoundrels' plan. They have taken measurements. They have begun cutting the air with scissors while sewing with their needles on stolen cloth. "Brilliant!" enthused members of the court at the prospect, apparently unwilling to be labeled ignorant or incompetent.

Regrettably there is no child to save the day in this retelling. Instead, veterans and survivors -- many who were present at the creation of the public CIO -- are grabbing at fraying hems and resisting naked ambition.

Those who no longer have, in the language of the original, "an important job and could only see things as [their] eyes had showed [them]" have mustered the courage to tell the truth.

Clutching the label from the old CIO suit, some are defending the delicate blend of equal parts politics and policy, vision and marketing, and operations and technology. Add to their number the court jesters who find fewer faults with the suit itself than with the manner in which it had been worn. Such fools dare to suggest that both emperors and CIOs could have done a better job with what they had.

Still others, including some of the recently exiled, want to salvage only politics, policy and persuasion from the old fabric -- and then weave in liberal amounts of gold and threads from the clothes of the emperors themselves -- to finally earn a place as a senior minister, and continue the effort of modernizing medieval institutions from a position of strength. Given that, a little Kevlar in the weave wouldn't hurt either.

The end of this tale has not yet been written. The CIO's new clothes could be one dandy suit, or we could all end up naked.
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.