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CIO’s Role Shifts From Managing Information to Promoting Innovation

Every generation in government has come with an impulse to reform or innovate.

Innovation. Insistence.Institutionalize. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Sesame Street is already humming the ditty about one of these things not being like the others. But they should be. And there has been no lack of trying.

Every generation in government has come with an impulse to reform or innovate. At the risk of oversimplification, the last half a century can fairly be remembered in these terms: In the 1960s, it was a call to serve. In the 1970s, there were calls to open government and reform legislative processes. The 1980s brought a call to increase capacity to serve a burgeoning number of people in need or with felt needs. Beginning in the mid-1990s, there was a push toward self-service in both the private and public sectors — touted for its potential of realizing both individual empowerment and institutional cost savings. And now we find ourselves still early in an era in which individuals are joining, forming and acting through groups or social networks even as legacy institutions try to adapt and change — often by squeezing themselves into smaller, cheaper footprints or consolidating previously discrete entities all together.

It isn’t coincidental that these eras map to technological advances — manual and mechanical processes gave way to semi-automation and automation (mainframes). Personal computing with the Internet accelerating self-service, and combined with mobile computing, they created the connective tissue of social networks. Technologies make new ways of doing things possible — but not by themselves.

Governments have an uneven track record as far as institutionalizing innovation. That’s not to marginalize the real progress and the hard-fought wins, but to underscore some of what it takes to win. Part of the formula is to have at least one person well enough positioned to insist on innovation.

The rise of the commodity Internet in the mid-1990s created an opening for CIOs to think and act broadly about pivoting from an era of data processing to one of innovating government operations.

The CIO had something important to say to cabinet colleagues about how to manage and govern through technology, and was a catalyst for as much of an overhaul that government could afford. CIOs, CTOs and the like had a significant advantage over their cabinet colleagues. The squishy title allowed the good ones to be nimble and adaptive, and insist that innovation and its attendant risk taking was (and is) the only way to deliver what elected officials said they need and citizens expect by way of change.

While budget directors’ first loyalty was to the bottom line of a spreadsheet and other cabinet members had legal obligations under statute to deliver service, regulate or otherwise meet a specific public mission, CIOs were charged with making them better at meeting their missions through modernization and innovation “implement possibilities” is how one CIO-led organization’s enabling statute read. The arrangement was not without tension but in many cases, it allowed public agencies to move faster and farther than if left to their own devices.

The dynamic changed during the recession, which ushered in a period of heads-down retrenchment, coping with uncertainty and muddling through the after effects of repeated budget cuts. Five years later, public finances are off some $200 billion compared to what they’d be without the recession, according to one estimate. There is also an enormous amount of pent-up demand growing behind that much lower baseline.  

As revenue forecasts continue to improve, a growing number of elected officials are showing signs that they won’t be satisfied with another round of doing-more-with-less. They want things done differently — quickly, smartly, sustainably.

Among the most visible signs of this shift are positions such as chief innovation and strategy officers, plus a full range of new and social media-related titles. Their charge is to harness the technologies and the communities of people that come together through them to get something done.

The rise of the new CIO (innovation) and similar positions don’t necessarily mean a diminished role of what is now the old CIO (information). In fact, old and new together — or CIO2 — could be a powerful combination as public enterprises work to figure out the future. Regardless of title, the task at hand is finding good answers to a simple but profoundly difficult and important question: What’s next?


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.