Few government CIOs view economic development as one of their jobs. But that attitude is beginning to change.
A CIO seldom becomes the region's chief technology officer who plans how infrastructure investments can boost economic development. But some experts believe there is a leadership vacuum just waiting to be filled by confident and ambitious public-sector CIOs.
"More economic development organizations are noting the importance of a strong regional IT infrastructure, but some of it is just lip service," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C., Atkinson said that CIOs "should be up on the bridge, not down in the engine room."
The space is sitting there waiting, and there's nobody better situated than a public-sector CIO to step into it, Atkinson said. IT executives should avoid a narrow focus - like deciding which version of server software to choose - and instead pursue a broader vision of what IT can contribute to the goals their jurisdictions want to achieve. Too many CIOs have defined their role narrowly, he said. "They have tended to think of e-gov as internal to government rather than in terms of e-society, and there is a big, big difference."
When Mike Manikowski, the economic development director of Ontario County, N.Y., goes on business retention or recruitment calls, there's one person he rarely leaves behind: the county's CIO.
Manikowski and CIO Ed Hemminger work as a team to promote a technology-driven development strategy for the county, which is located in western New York's Finger Lakes region. "He's a very collaborative guy, very enthusiastic and he's a shaper of public opinion," Manikowski said about Hemminger. "He'll go speak to any community group, whether its four people or 400."
To boost broadband infrastructure in underserved parts of the county, Hemminger and Manikowski led county efforts to create a fiber ring. The county established and helped fund the nonprofit Finger Lakes Regional Telecommunications Development Corp. - with Hemminger as CEO - to build the fiber ring by 2010 and lease capacity to other entities.
"It's important that telecom is not an impediment to doing business here," explained Hemminger. "We have a phenomenal quality of life here, and with world-class telecom at the doorstep, companies will start considering us for data centers and to locate here and connect to other sites and other companies."
Two years ago, Riverside, Calif., Mayor Ron Loveridge didn't hesitate asking city CIO Steve Reneker to become the executive director of Smart Riverside, a technology-focused economic development effort.
Launched a decade ago, Smart Riverside has two primary objectives. The first is digital inclusion - getting computers, Internet access and training to 20,000 families by 2010. The second is to engage CEOs of technology businesses about how the city can help foster the local high-tech economy.
Two years ago, a local high-technology task force outlined what they thought Smart Riverside could do to help retain and recruit high-tech companies. Reneker sees his job as addressing their suggested actions, including implementing wireless technology across the city.
The toughest aspect of taking on the executive director role, Reneker said, is balancing it with his full-time job as CIO. He estimates he spends about 50 percent of his time on Smart Riverside. He has made that possible by hiring a strong lieutenant in CTO Leyden Hahn, who oversees day-to-day city IT operations.
CIOs can play a bigger role, Reneker said, but "it depends on city executives with the vision to understand they have a resource internally."
One technology executive whose job description has grown to match his natural inclination toward teamwork is Peter Cooper, chief technology officer of El Paso County in Texas. "This is not just a techie job," he stressed. "It has evolved into a good combination that includes collaboration with other government entities,
higher education and groups that affect economic development in general."
Cooper has been a key player in a Wi-Fi project called Digital El Paso, which started with a two-square-mile area that includes downtown El Paso and some low-income residential neighborhoods stretching to the Mexican border. The group meets monthly to exchange ideas and it has grown to include clinics, nonprofits, schools and businesses, Cooper said. The effort is also a digital inclusion project in which El Paso Community College is taking donated PCs and refurbishing them for low-income families.
Cooper also recently chaired a high-tech business expo organized by the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Rather than just vendors, we got a number of regional tech projects to showcase what they are doing," he said. "We tried to do more to promote El Paso and some of the smaller tech efforts you never get a chance to hear about."
Note: The full version of this article will appear in the February 2009 issue of Public CIO magazine