Mission critical and mission creep bookend much of the public-sector IT community’s experience. The former defines the class of systems that government can’t live without, particularly those that support secure transactions in public safety, health and welfare. The latter is the bane of every project manager’s existence as scope expands and requirements try to accommodate the art of the possible.
Both keep CIOs and CTOs busy enough that they’re rarely distracted by speculation about existential threats — but they’re not immune from them. The Y2K mitigation effort created angst about the evolving role, as did the arrival of the Internet, e-commerce, e-government and e-everything else. Add to the list the current push to merge public agencies to cut costs. There’s a new spectator sport in counting technology agencies that ascend with a wider control span and those de-evolving to their original budget or administrative agencies.
Endless ink has been spilled exploring the possibilities and prospects for these new flavors of chief. The results are a tad inconclusive except for a general Darwinian consensus that resonated with veterans and newbies alike: Adapt or die.
It’s useful to add another mission-related word: pivot. Mission pivots are key to sustaining technology’s leadership in doing public business. Technology moves fast; government’s deliberative processes move slowly. That can whipsaw technology agencies and their leaders, notably during fiscal austerity. Triage is now common in which hard decisions are made about how agencies operate — sometimes doing more and doing things differently; in others, maintaining extant structures and service models; and in yet others, ending mature or underperforming services. In a word, pivoting.
The value of technology innovation is in bettering business processes, not in owning or operating infrastructure. Enterprise IT organizations are being consolidated, merged and nested within larger managements and shared services organizations. Increasingly third-party managed and hosted services challenge long-standing justifications for large stand-alone government data centers. As IT provisioning structures change, CIO-led organizations must remain nimble and robust for their customers and avoid being wedded to conventional operating ways. CIOs have the opportunity (if not obligation) to fill the void with disciplined management for government operations and service delivery.
Pivoting to become the resident source of business process expertise may not have been part of the plan (professionally or organizationally), and it may require retraining or rebalancing the IT bench, but it’s a strategic move to help customer agencies optimize their technology and investments.
Maintaining a strategic perspective on the myriad offerings in the technology marketplace is also growing in importance — less in terms of competitive analysis for internal IT service providers, but as a fluid source of potential partners that can be engaged and managed on behalf of customer agencies.
In all of this, CIOs, CTOs and their ilk are equal parts negotiator, broker, 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 get done.
Paul W. Taylor is the chief content officer for e.Republic and senior adviser to the Center for Digital Government. Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board.