What Is a Chief Information Officer?

For CIOs, emphasis is usually placed on the customers and their needs rather than the technology itself.

by / July 28, 2016
Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge says the CIO is a C-level job because anyone with that title should be part of execution and day-to-day operations -- and whatever strategic conversations are taking place in the organization. Colin Wood

As the power of technology has grown in recent years, the relevance of the chief information officer (CIO) role has expanded in kind. Nearly all businesses rely on modern technology, and so they also need someone who can manage those assets effectively. And the CIO is the person responsible for developing a technology strategy and ensuring the efficacy of his or her enterprise's computer systems, all to support the organization's grander designs.

Where the traditional description of a CIO was someone whose primary job it was to fix things when they broke and merely "keep the lights on," as the saying goes, today's chief information officers are typically responsible for a more extensive range of tasks, from planning through execution. Following the lead of the mayor, governor, board of supervisors, president or CEO, as the case may be, it's common that a CIO be held responsible for outlining and delivering a broad vision for the future of technology operations that affect every employee under that enterprise.

When asked for a description of his or her role, the most common response given by a chief information officer is something along the lines of, "It's my job to enable the vision, goals and strategic plan of the organization through the thorough and diligent administration of technology."

The emphasis is usually placed on the customers and their needs rather than the technology itself — a sentiment echoed by former Michigan and California CIO Teri Takai, who also served as CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense.

"It's not about technology," Takai said. "It's about ensuring that the customers, whether they're citizens, government agencies or, in the case of DoD, the men and women in uniform, are getting what they need from information technology."

The defining responsibilities of a CIO include keeping an organization's basic infrastructure — phones, computer networks, data centers — online and secure. The CIO is also responsible for the operation and security the software layer — the applications that run on top of that infrastructure. And more broadly, the CIO is responsible for planning and finding ways to match the systems with the goals of his or her organization.

Roles surrounding modern technology are relatively new when compared with traditional roles such as a city manager, for instance, and therefore are typically not as well defined. The CIO role, however, is probably the best-established among these new titles, while jobs like chief technology officer (CTO) and chief innovation officer are more flexible in their meaning, and can vary greatly from one organization to another. In some cases, a person designated as CTO may actually be performing functions more often designated to the CIO, but his or her title remains CTO as a remnant of that government's history.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, CIO for the city of Boston since mid-2014, explained why the role he and his counterparts hold is given an increasingly wide reach in government today.

"The CIO is a C-level job because, in theory, anyone with that title should be part not only of execution and day-to-day operations, but they should be part of whatever strategic conversations are taking place in the organization," Franklin-Hodge explained. "And the reason to have a CIO in government is to recognize that without technology at the table in 2016, you can't really do much strategically, because tech is a component of any significant policy, program or initiative you're going to undertake."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.