CIOs: Do You Have a Strategy to Remain Relevant? (Opinion)

Even public CIOs aren't immune to downsizing and layoffs.

by / January 25, 2010
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Only a few years ago, public-sector organizations were rushing to create chief information officer positions and technology executives were pushing to obtain the CIO title. The argument behind this movement went something like this: Technology is strategic to the organization, and the position should be too.

The question quickly surfaced about whether the person carrying the CIO title was really the chief technology strategist or simply the chief technologist, i.e., the highest ranking techie. Given today's challenges, this issue seems almost quaint.

Now the focus is on how CIOs remain relevant (and employed) in this economic crisis that's led to widespread downsizing in government organizations. The first time I read about an IT leader being laid off, his position being eliminated or his duties being combined into those of a chief administrative officer type, I thought it was the wrong move -- but I wasn't overly concerned.

Now that I've seen it happen several more times and have heard of public-sector leaders who question a CIO's value, I'm becoming alarmed -- and so should you! So what can a CIO do to remain relevant, and hopefully, prevent job loss?

First, it's important to understand how you bring the most value to your organization. This perspective means putting your preferences aside and objectively considering what role your organization needs most. For instance, does your organization value timely access to information and information systems above all else? If so, then CIO may be most appropriate. Other options to evaluate include:

  • a chief technology officer position, when the organization values and needs a strong technology leader;
  • a chief technology strategist, when the focus must be on the organization's IT strategy; and 
  • a chief technology leader, when the organization requires strong leadership of the technology function.

While you might be thinking your organization needs all of these roles, ranking your organization's needs is a good way to focus your efforts.

Next, regardless of the CIO's primary role, driving down cost -- not just in IT but organizationwide -- is vital. As someone wisely stated, a 5 percent reduction in IT costs is great; a 5 percent reduction in operating costs for the organization is phenomenal. While we may have hesitated in the past to focus on job elimination as a result of technology implementation, it's key in these economic times. Equally important is hard-dollar return on investment and, better yet, increasing revenue. Your contribution to the organization's fiscal bottom line is today's measuring stick in the public sector, not just private industry.

Another suggestion is to position oneself to gain more responsibility when layoffs or job consolidations occur. CIO certification is great; experience and education outside of technology leadership is even better. Volunteering for assignments outside your comfort zone allows you to be seen as an executive, not just the chief techie. Over the years, I served on emergency operations boards, participated on a city's economic development team and led a building construction project. These "other duties as assigned" coupled with a master's degree in public administration served me well.

Finally the CIO position should be seen as a viable path to CEO. Private industry is recognizing this career progression and leading-edge public-sector organizations are beginning to follow its example. Few other leadership positions require understanding the entire organization's operations and ways to improve them.

The lesson learned? CIOs who look up and out can find their roles expanded instead of eliminated.


Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas