The Public CIO as Artist

A professional journey for which you may not have signed up.

by / February 9, 2006
In the brief history of the public CIO, we may be witnesses to a point of departure in the nature and function of the role by level of government.

The majority report in local government suggests that the CIO's role has morphed from a heads-down, back-office, technology-focused position in a control agency to a heads-up, front-office, business-focused role with a span of control indistinguishable from that of an assistant city manager -- including general and financial management on one hand to economic development and strategic planning on the other.

Federal CIOs represent another hybrid. Some are career civil servants who know how to get things done within the Beltway, some are seasoned technologists who know what should be done, others are both, and most -- in the absence of a designated federal CIO -- have seen their interests better served by acting together through the Federal CIO Council.

At the state level, a noteworthy number of control agencies have re-exerted themselves by annexing formerly independent enterprise IT organizations into their fold, or by sending their emissaries to manage such organizations that were formerly led by CIOs.

Despite declarations that they were neither trained nor enlisted for the new roles, local government CIOs have accommodated themselves to the wider span of control. In the main, most hybrid CIO-assistant city managers are increasingly comfortable as owner, customer and operator of enterprise systems. At the other levels of government, the office of CIO has recreated itself depending on the incumbents' relative aptitudes in technology, management, policy and politics.

Some combination of those aptitudes is necessary but insufficient for the challenges and opportunities of a world in flux. Likewise, ones and zeros -- the coin of the realm in IT -- are necessary but insufficient as we move forward. That's according to Daniel Pink, a former White House speechwriter who made his name almost a decade ago as chief advocate of a free agent nation and now returns with limited response to some of the issues raised by Thomas Friedman's flat world assessment of globalization. Pink's new book, A Whole New Mind, is based on the proposition that:

Mere survival today depends on being able to do something that overseas knowledge workers can't do cheaper, that powerful computers can't do faster, and that satisfies one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age.

That is why high tech is no longer enough. We'll need to supplement our well developed high-tech abilities with abilities that are high concept and high touch. [The former] involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention.

The CIO as artist? Hogwash. But then again, it's the artist who has big dreams and gives voice to vision -- that intangible quality we expect from leaders (including ourselves). And, as observed in the first piece I wrote for Government Technology magazine four years ago, "It is sobering to walk the halls of state capitols. The architecture, the statuary, the inscriptions all reflect the aspirations of the people who dared to carve their values and dreams into stone. The permanence, the elegance and the grandeur of these public spaces may point out a faulty design assumption in much of what has been built in the government Internet space to date -- we dream too small."

Today's CIOs can be excused for not resting easy. As implausible as such a transformation may sound, CIOs as self-respecting technological geeks (with the latent genes of mandarin bureaucrats, policy wonks and political hacks) who are in touch with their inner artistic freaks walked among us during the heady gov-dot-com days. Some still do today. They are the ones who made it look easy.
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.