CIOs Struggle to Find the Right Role for IT in Government

IT departments must conserve resources and time during recession.

by / February 19, 2009

My approach has never been to say, "Not my job." Throughout my career I have refused several roles for IT that the business units or the organization's leadership tried to give us. Why? Accepting these roles would be a waste of time and resources, and more importantly, would negatively impact relationships with the very people asking us to perform the duties. Instead, my approach was to offer our services as an enabler to a more appropriate business unit. Unfortunately I continue to see IT departments across the country struggling with inappropriate roles.

Refuse to Accept
First, IT should understand that while it may care for and feed numerous IT systems, as a business unit, it probably owns very little data. I've seen IT departments, and even individual IT staffers, face the consequences - sometimes serious - of releasing data they do not own. A clear policy and education on this topic can prevent this type of problem.

Closely related to data ownership is the role of records manager. Since IT houses data, it's often forced or tries to set policy around records storage and retention, most often based on resource constraints instead of legal requirements. Instead, each organization should appoint a records manager in a more appropriate department, such as administration, the clerk's office or the organization's management office, who works with leadership to establish enterprise policies. IT can then provide the technologies to enable these policies and support enforcement by the records manager.

While we're on the topic of enforcement, the third role I refused to accept was that of cyber-cop. This one caused me the most grief, but as CIO, I steadfastly refused to monitor the organization's entire work force and spend significant resources to restrict employee Internet activities.

You might be wondering what I was thinking, but understand my philosophy: Wasting time at work did start with the advent of computers. While technology might make it easier or more seductive to use business resources for personal reasons, managers still must manage their employees. This role refusal does not mean that my IT shops didn't use cyber-cop tools. We avoided wholesale deployment and instead offered managers the tools when they suspected a problem; we even worked with the real cops on more than one occasion when it was necessary.

Take On, Then Shed

Through the years, my IT colleagues and I took on several roles that were more appropriate somewhere else in the organization. The reason? We believed IT could incubate them until they became sustainable functions. These roles included conducting business process improvement efforts, project management, organizational strategic planning, managing IT governance and leading innovation.

While you may believe that any or all of these roles are most appropriate in IT -and in many cases, they were housed in IT when I was in charge - I maintain that they were more impactful when separated from IT. This separation leads to a higher degree of ownership by the organization, especially in the areas of IT governance, strategic planning and process improvement.

The Role of IT
You might wonder what I believe IT should be doing. Well, in addition to the important role of enabler, IT is also the organization's technology educator, visionary and consultant. Other, less-obvious roles include:

o Translator: imparting and ensuring understanding of technical information by nontechnical people.
o Politician: successfully navigating the government arena and gaining support and resources.
o Business strategist: understanding the organization's operations and providing technologies to support and enhance them.
o Salesperson: clearly communicating IT's services and successes to gain customers, resources and credibility.
o Financial manager: serving as the steward of public funds to ensure that resources are used effectively.
o Facilitator: identifying cross-functional opportunities and working with various stakeholders to achieve success.

Since the role of today's IT leader is more complex than ever, being selective about what jobs you accept is essential to success.


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