For a while there, trendy C-suite titles were taking on a distinctly religious overtone. Chief Inspiration Officer. Chief Internet Evangelist. Chief Everything Officer. Things have settled down some, but the groundswell of chiefs in the last few years has left its mark, especially in functions related to IT.
Chief data/privacy/performance/digital officers appear in government with increasing frequency. Each has some overlap with the CIO’s function, so each state and local government has to work out in its own way just which chief will oversee what domain.
All this unfolds against a backdrop in which public-sector CIOs are taking on an increasingly strategic role in civic operations. Do the new Cs undermine that growing influence? Depends how you want to play it.
They’re not the CIO, but they often live next door. They’re the newest residents of the C-suite in government, often filling roles that have only just been defined.
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It isn’t always easy to see how a “new” chief’s role might overlap the terrain of the IT head. But in Tony Saudek’s case, the connection’s crystal clear.
“Technology for us is the great enabler. It’s what gets us to the high-definition information,” said Saudek, chief performance officer of Washington, D.C. He came to the position after serving as special assistant to the under secretary of benefits at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, where he managed the VBA Stat process, aimed at reducing the backlog of veterans’ benefits.
“Technology lets us know not just how many pounds the trash collection teams have picked up, but specifically which homes are they getting to, what is their average amount of trash, is it changing as the city demographics have changed? How does rainfall change trash collection? Technology allows us to ask much higher-quality questions.”
For all this to happen, Saudek relies on his IT colleagues. Rather than compete for the rights to information, he said, “My work relies on the flow of information, while the chief technology officer and his staff are the enablers of that. I think of myself as a prime client for the CTO.”
Changing public expectation may help to account for the “C” in Saudek’s title. The role of performance officer has taken on higher prominence as citizens have called for more transparency and accountability in government.
Ironically IT advances have played a large role in fueling the public’s expectations when it comes to civic performance. People realize that information often is there for the asking. As a result, Saudek’s largest challenge is one he shares with his tech peers.
“The biggest hurdle we face is in setting expectations,” he said. “In a world of iPhones and articles on big data, it can be frustrating to people at all levels of government that there should be things that seem so knowable, that we just don’t know.”
People ask: Why hasn’t this public land been mowed? Well, is the land actually public? Who has the tax records? It’s a performance and IT issue at the same time. Ultimately it’s an issue of good governance.
“The CTO and I have to spend a lot of our time setting expectations for the mayor, city administration and other customers, saying we do sympathize, we feel this should be knowable — and yet it is going to take weeks or even months to make it knowable,” Saudek said.
It’s clear that the role of the newfangled C sometimes can rub up against the shoulders of a more traditional C-suite resident. Sometimes, in fact, the two can come so close they literally meld into one.
Theresa Reno-Weber came on in 2012 as Louisville, Ky.’s chief of performance improvement with an aim toward establishing a statistics office. As we’ve seen, the performance chief relies heavily on IT to deliver data. In Reno-Weber’s case, that reliance became so pronounced that in August 2014 she got a title change, becoming chief of performance and technology. A strong IT director manages daily technology affairs, but overall IT sits on her plate right alongside performance.
The move seemed a natural one, as the effort to expose data became, increasingly, an effort to access data. “A lot of the work we were doing would get held up in trying to access the data from legacy systems,” she said.
Reno-Weber’s efforts to compile statistics exposed gaping holes in the IT infrastructure. “Some of our departments are over a barrel if someone is out on vacation. They literally cannot access their information,” she said.
Crowdsourcing the CDO
In the rush to enact open data policies and dive into innovation projects, governments are seriously considering the value of chief data officers — and officials in Long Beach, Calif., are no different. But the city is taking a different approach: crowdsourcing.
Privacy in West Virginia cuts a wide swath, encompassing health records, financial data and educational information. A range of laws define privacy expectations, and every department that reports to the governor has its own privacy officer. Chief Privacy Officer Sallie Milam has been holding all those pieces together since 2003 — a long tenure in a position that has only recently emerged elsewhere in government.
She came to the job following a stint as executive director of the West Virginia Health Information Network, a logical jumping-off point, with health at the center of so many privacy discussions.
“We’ve been around a long time,” Milam said of her 50-person team. Over those years the privacy chief has led development of requirements in response to changing laws. She’s created baseline policies for the executive branch and led training for some 26,000 employees.
When it comes to relations with the technology chief, Milam joins many of today’s “new” chiefs in describing a relationship that straddles a delicate line between IT and its close cousins. Take for example incident response. When a potential privacy breach emerges, Milam’s group and the CTO’s security team go in simultaneously. They collaborate through the investigation, each supporting the targeted department in its own way.
“I see our jobs as pretty discreet, while requiring really good collaboration and coordination,” she said.
At the same time, there’s always room for improvement in any relationship, and Milam said she’d be pleased if IT were to take her role a little closer to heart. “I would love it if IT folks got into privacy more, if we could be building privacy into the heart of a project rather than trying to bolt it on at the end,” she said. “We could have those privacy principles built into the design right from the beginning.”
Sometimes the chain of what constitutes IT can extend in unexpected directions. In Gilbert, Ariz., for example, former TV executive Dana Berchman signed on in 2012 as the city’s first chief digital officer. With a population of 239,000 expected to grow by 100,000 in the next five to 10 years, it made sense to put a dedicated C-person in charge of the digital realm.
Then a funny thing happened. The city manager looked up and realized there was no depth to Gilbert’s communications department: just a public information officer and a few AV techs. “It was all very reactive,” Berchman said. “We didn’t have branding, we didn’t have guidelines, we didn’t have social media channels. Our mayor was the only mayor in the area who wasn’t on Twitter.”
It’s that last bit that is worth noting: Thanks to the social media explosion, Gilbert’s digital chief found herself the C version of communications director too. Social media is digital — let’s give it to the digital person.
Melding the roles has sometimes been a challenge, like when Berchman started asking employees to build their LinkedIn profiles. “People were confused. They would say, ‘You want us looking for jobs while we’re at work?’ No, we want you to network, to build relationships.”
While Berchman works in close cooperation with the city’s IT director, “he is more focused on the internal, keeping all of the systems running,” she said.
Maksim Pecherskiy ran a one-man shop from November 2014 until hiring his first employee in September 2015. It took that long just to figure out how big the mountain was that he was about to climb.
“My job got created with the open data policy,” he said. “Mayor Kevin Faulconer and a lot of the members of the council were strong supporters of that policy, which effectively said that the city has a lot of data and we need to open it up to the citizens.”
His appointment set the wheels in motion, with 40 departments compiling data inventories: What did they have, where was it, and why did it matter? This could have been farmed out to the IT shop — it is data, after all — but given the depth and breadth of analysis that would be needed, the task required its own level of administration.
“The inventory was a very human-powered process. IT helped a lot, but it would have been very hard for IT alone to work across all the departments with training processes, with interactions that happen at all the different levels,” Pecherskiy said.
The human element has always factored into Pecherskiy’s work. Before taking on his present job he worked as a Code for America fellow in Puerto Rico, crafting a tool to help business owners and residents search and apply for government programs.
Pecherskiy works a few doors down from the CIO and also partners closely with the CISO. The data chief said his high-level designation makes it possible to achieve things that otherwise might not happen. “The C lets me work across the organization,” Pecherskiy said. “It lets me call up a department head directly and say, ‘Let’s have lunch.’ I don’t think I would be able to do that if I didn’t have the C.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.