As technology evolves and finds its place in business, the role of the technology leader -- the CIO -- also is changing. According to a recent report from Gartner, there are four future roles for IT and corresponding roles for CIOs. These roles, according to Gartner, may exist in combination with one another depending on the organization in question. The roles are:

  • IT is a global service provider, a centralized entity served by a CIO that is an “integrator and an optimizer.” 
  • IT is the business. Information is the product or has become so close to the product so as to become impossible to differentiate between the two. In this scenario, the CIO is an “explorer and pioneer.”
  • IT is like an engine room, “monitoring technology and market developments, and building expertise in IT asset optimization, sourcing and vendor management, and IT financial management,” the article states. In this scenario, the CIO is a “broker and engineer.”
  • Everyone's IT” is a scenario in which IT is not confined to a department but is embraced by everyone in the organization. The CIO is an “enabler and conductor,” in this scenario.
"Although this isn't an entirely new development," said Gartner Vice President John Mahoney," the extent of the change is growing and a tipping point will be reached in the next five years."

Traditionally the CIO's main role has been of  IT director -- but that is quickly changing, said Wake County, N.C., CIO Bill Greeves. “It's not particularly about the nuts and bolts of particular systems or applications or infrastructure," he said, "it's much more about being the change agent for an organization. Technology itself has really become commonplace in all of our government operations."

In some ways, the four roles of IT outlined by Gartner are all pieces of a common idea. The role of the CIO is transforming to that of an enabler and innovator because IT is embraced by everyone in the organization -- and daily maintenance and technical assistance are required less frequently. “Everyone is becoming a technologist in their own right,” Greeves said, “so that forces the CIO role to change to be much less of the gatekeeper.”

Technology is now at a place, Greeves said, where many things that were once difficult can now be taken for granted, leaving the CIO to focus on innovating and enabling business units.

Michigan CIO David Behen also spoke of a future in which the CIO is primarily an innovator and enabler. “I believe the CIO really needs to focus on leadership -- being a leader, a manager and coach in organizations to reach business goals,” he said. While talk of cloud computing and bring-your-own-device abounds, government CIOs are generally not living up to their superiors' expectations, Behen said, because they're not focusing enough on being business-oriented.

“Your business agencies, your partners are going to be looking at you to help them figure out how they can be more successful with their business with the use of IT,” he said. “Not only do you sit there and talk about what's possible -- then you gotta push them. You gotta talk about business process review, you gotta talk about how to change the processes, how you're going to do change management, work with your teams, the people part of it.”

Having a shared vision is important in any business, Behen said, and if CIOs want to succeed, they need to have good relationships with the business-minded people in their organizations. “The CIO can't just be a technical guy anymore," he said. "They gotta be someone who understands the business and relates to the business."

Following a career in the private sector, Boston CIO Bill Oates said that his past six years of public service have seen big changes in how governments operate. “My sense is that we're much more involved with the business," he said, "and [we] help try to transform the service delivery that we provide to our constituents across the city in all areas of government."

Concepts like big data are powerful forces that compel people in government to change the way they do business, Oates said, and it's the CIO's job to show how it's done. “One of the challenges for a CIO is that you really need to be -- and should be -- part of how your city is innovating,” he said. But at the same time, the traditional role of an enabler who keeps everything running smoothly shouldn't be ignored, otherwise, “bad things happen,” he said. “In a CIO role, you can never forget the importance of the blocking and tackling."

IT organizations come in different types and sizes, but putting that aside, government IT is headed toward a future in which the bulk of a CIO's time will be spent doing two things, said Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental.

The CIO, he said, will be the agency's technology expert, who helps to vet and coordinate new technology in alignment with the organization's goals. Enabling business, as the other interviewed CIOs mentioned, will become a major part of what the CIO does. As department and division leaders have the opportunity to purchase software- and hardware-as-a-service, government IT will do less with the data center and managing technical problems, Reichental said, and the CIO's role become that of an adviser.

And IT in government will need to increase focus on enterprise architecture to ensure technology services are seamlessly integrated and supportive of organizational goals, he said. Government IT organizations will become smaller, Reichental added, and IT contractors and temporary IT will become more common.

“It's a bit of a journey,” he said, “but we are absolutely on the verge of a transformation of how IT is delivered, and thus the role of the IT leader, the CIO.”

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog.