Weathering the Storm

CIOs are appointed, not elected. Would changing that fact protect them from getting caught up in political storms?

by / July 3, 2002
Like many high-level state government jobs, the chief information officer is appointed by the governor. Unlike those other jobs, though, the CIO is at least nominally responsible for creating policies that affect the entire enterprise of state government. A revolving door at the CIO's office could, arguably, create technology headaches for a state both in the present and in the future.

If a state's method of managing technology across the enterprise is constantly in flux, does the state run the risk of setting itself up for embarrassing technology scandals, snafus and set backs?

Finding the Right Person

Appointees are chosen for a reason, either they're very good politically or they're very savvy with some aspect of the job, said Wendy Rayner, the first CIO of New Jersey and a partner of Tatum CIO Partners.

Governors need to bring in their own team because those people support the governor's agenda, and career employees may not because they have their own ways of doing things or came in under a different administration, she said.

Patronage is a force in the appointment process, and it's a force that won't go away despite its dangers, Rayner said.

"If people think technology is important, they'd better hire somebody who can do the job and not just put a patronage person in there," she said. "There's too much that can go wrong. We're kind of like the quiet wheel -- if we squeak, it's not good. We're paying the checks; we're doing unemployment, Medicare, you name it.

"There's thousands, if not millions, of pieces of paper and checks and things that are getting done every day," she said. "You want to find good people for these jobs. Governors try to, certainly for the top jobs. Yes, they're going to pay some people back, but, generally, you want to find qualified people because, as governor, you don't want all that [negative] exposure, either."

Turning Vision Into Reality

Incoming administrations should have the opportunity to fill certain, critical positions with appointed personnel, said Stephanie Comai, who was appointed director of the e-Michigan Office, the lead agency for electronic-government initiatives in state agencies, by Gov. John Engler.

"The administration will have a vision about what they want to see the state move toward," Comai said. "Governor John Engler certainly has a technology vision for this state, and he's been able to accomplish what he's accomplished, oftentimes, because he does have somebody who's an appointee and who can bring new leadership to the agency or to the program."

Trust plays a large role in governors' decisions of who to appoint to key positions, and including the CIO position.

"The trend has been that the CIO is a commissioner, a secretary or a cabinet official, which generally means that the governor gets to appoint the CIO," said Rock Regan, CIO of Connecticut and president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). "That's good, because governors need to have somebody they can trust. They want somebody who can come in and get a handle on things, and, then as the governor sets the priorities, to have somebody who can deliver. The institutional knowledge is there because the staff isn't going to change."

A Position With No Teeth

The CIO is too important to a state to not be filled by a political appointment, said John Thomas Flynn, CEO of TechEd Strategies, a technology consulting entity that's part of the Community College Foundation. Flynn also was the first CIO of Massachusetts and was also CIO of California.

"If you're not a political appointee, you don't have a seat at the table," Flynn said. "If you're not a political appointee, you're not a senior official. You're not in touch. You don't meet with the secretary regularly. It's the same old, same old. If you want to have your state CIO two or three rungs down the ladder, that's fine, but IT is too important."

Flynn recalled a conversation he and then-Assembly Member Debra Bowen had, during his tenure in California, several years ago concerning the post of CIO.

"She thought it would be an interesting idea to make it a legislative appointment, or an independent position," he said. "She wanted to set it up like the state auditor's position. "I told her, 'The problem with that is that you can't have that person doing strategic planning. You can't have that person doing any innovative IT initiatives; he or she will just be a watchdog. You have to have both: You have to have the strategic planning responsibility and budget responsibility, and you have to be the watchdog.' That's the way it should be."

If a state's CIO doesn't have a combination of powers, the position winds up at the mercy of state agencies that can decide individually how they want to use their budgets on IT purchases, he said.

"The critical issue here is identifying the direction that the CEO of the state wants to take; identifying the enabling technologies to get there; supporting them and funding them; and doing proper oversight on the project itself," he said. "A legislatively directed or auditor concept would only cover one third of the CIO's job, and it wouldn't do that very well.

"It would be a very difficult way to do it," he said. "It'd be like a having a state auditor doing the job -- not there to do good, but there to find things that are wrong. There's a lot more to being a CIO."