In 12 short months, chances are you will be deciding whether to rent a tuxedo and buy tickets for the inaugural ball. Protracted court challenges notwithstanding, the results of the 2010 gubernatorial elections should be known by then. The combination of term limits and retirements mean that at least 20 states will elect new governors, but two-thirds of all states will have contests for the role of chief executive.

As transitions typically go, there will be numerous empty seats around the Cabinet table when inauguration day rolls around. But there may be fewer chairs to fill. Permanently.

Take Michigan. The state was first in and hardest hit by the fiscal crisis, owing in no small measure to its reliance on the legacy automobile industry. Just as General Motors jettisoned Pontiac, Saturn and Saab to focus on its core brands (Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC), so too the state is trimming its portfolio.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm asked Lt. Gov. John Cherry this year to propose a plan to reduce the number of state departments from 18 to eight. Cherry has reduced the number to seven core functions of government:

1. public safety;

2. education;

3. public systems (transportation, water, energy and information technology);

4. well-being (medical care, social services and public assistance);

5. sustainability (natural resources);

6. economic opportunity and prosperity (attracting investment, business regulation and consumer affairs); and

7. efficiency and effectiveness (transparency, administration and fiscal management).

It's easy to see elements of a CIO-led organization in a number of those core functions. As a practical matter, Granholm is placing IT back into the state's Department of Management and Budget. The change's announcement called the move a "merger" that brings the total agency count to 15, down from the constitutional cap of 20 agencies, the state's level just a few years ago.

One state employee enthused that the consolidation brings with it "all kinds of remarkable ICT [information and communication technology] infusion possibilities at the enterprise and shared service levels."

Ken Theis, the current state CIO, will oversee the consolidation of the two departments and will ultimately be named the new department's director.

Theis' elevation mirrors an expanded span of control granted to local government public CIOs to the roles of assistant city manager or county executive. It legitimizes the management prowess and strategic vision of those originally appointed to manage technology alone. His challenge will be to institutionalize the multiplying and forcing effect of technology on the way the state does business.

In a recent conversation about the structural changes under way in Michigan -- and on the horizon elsewhere if projections by the National Governors Association and a growing number of think tanks are accurate -- Theis told me, "I don't see us getting through this and looking anything near what we look like today."

That's true of government structures in general and the role of the public CIO. But the question is different this time. It's not about the merits of being a political appointee or career civil servant. It's about whether the role will still be recognizable as we have come to know it in the years since it emerged from finance and administration departments in the first place, or whether it will exist at all.

 

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer