A single line from the president’s State of the Union address went viral and may well outlast the other 7,000 words from the speech. “In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living.” Indeed, it’s how public CIOs should make theirs.

The thoroughly modern occupation of the CIO emerged during an age of abundance. The watchword during the ascendency was “transformation,” an aspirational description of both the destination and the means of automating tired, old bureaucratic processes with digital efficiencies.

Under the banner of transformation, CIOs aggressively pursued big iron and custom code. There were new data centers to build, new networks to deploy and aging systems to modernize. Most weren’t first movers when the Internet arrived, but in time, found a way to use it to extend the value of enterprise IT by bringing government online.

Many newly appointed CIOs inherit only a vestige of that environment. The financial crisis, the effects of which are still working their way through the public sector, has forced changes to some long-standing assumptions.

A pre-election poll of state CIOs by the Center for Digital Government suggests they were sensing a change in expectations. Eighty-three percent anticipated their span of control would expand over the next two years, while 73 percent saw their influence expanding during the same period. The indications are that there’s heavy lifting ahead, but without the excesses of what’s rapidly becoming a bygone era.

Under the rubric of transformation, some well intentioned initiatives poured massive amounts of time, effort and money to create high-tech solutions to a problem, when a simple, viable solution would do the same thing at lower cost. Worse yet, automation was sometimes used to speed up things that shouldn’t have been done. The excesses have extended to buying software licenses in bulk to get better per-seat pricing even as many of the seats go empty, and building ever-larger data centers even as the computing footprint shrinks. Against that backdrop are misguided metrics for measuring CIOs — budget, head count and even square footage under their control — that create disincentives for doing the things these times require.

The challenge — and opportunity — as we move forward is to marry innovation with the disciplines of scarcity (which has returned whether we like it or not).

Innovation can and does happen during good times, but it really matters when times are lean. It is surfacing agency data so it can be used by third parties to do useful things that government can’t do for itself. It is sharing data, applications, infrastructure, facilities and even people among the family of agencies and across jurisdictional lines. It’s forgetting almost everything we thought we knew about governance so we can think through what it means to jointly steward and safeguard assets in the new public commons that no single entity owns. Perhaps most importantly, it’s prioritizing information flow over technology in ensuring that organizations and people get what they need, when they need it, with the least complexity. To those ends, it means blowing the plaque out of old arteries to keep the lifeblood of organizations — data — flowing at healthy rates.

This return to scarcity may begin to look more like community barn raising of old than custom home building of more recent years where a premium is placed on, and paid for, getting exactly what you want and the way you want it. Necessity is still the mother of invention. And frugality is the last best alternative to austerity.

The new CIO is equal parts negotiator, diplomat, process physician, shaman (to the degree they remain intermediaries to the digital world) and community organizer. They will be measured not by how much they buy or build but by how much they accomplish.

Paul W. Taylor is chief content officer for e.Republic. Taylor previously served as the deputy CIO of Washington state and as chief strategy officer for the Center for Digital Government. He has worked in the public and private sectors, the media and Washington’s Digital Government Applications Academy.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer