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What Do the Gubernatorial Elections Mean for State CIOs?

Many new governors and re-elected incumbents will now consider appointments to lead state departments. But an expert cautions IT leadership to resist the temptation to play politics as states’ power balance shifts.

Closeup of an “I Voted” sticker.
With the dust settling on 36 state gubernatorial elections this year, the picture of which states will have new governors is becoming clear. The Associated Press has called all of the races with the exception of Alaska, where the incumbent governor appears to be ahead as of Nov. 17.

Not counting Alaska, nine states will have a new governor, with four of those electing a governor from a different political party.

Pennsylvania, Oregon, Nebraska, Hawaii and Arkansas will all see new governors of the same party as the previous governor. Nevada, Maryland, Massachusetts and Arizona all elected a candidate of a different party than their current governor.
This has implications on a wide array of state-level policies in the gov tech world, most notably that there are nine new faces with the power to appoint state CIOs.

Repeated Government Technology analyses of state CIOs in 2019 and 2022 have found that when there’s a transition in governorship — particularly when there’s a transition in political party — state CIOs are more likely to step down or be replaced.

When a governorship is handed to a new political party, the state’s CIO is replaced within a year 69 percent of the time. When the governorship is held by a new person of the same political party, CIOs are still swapped 60 percent of the time.

Even when an incumbent is re-elected, an election can serve as a natural point of transition for some appointed officers. While Minnesota’s Tarek Tomes was reappointed earlier this week after that state’s election, about one-quarter of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’ cabinet is now vacant.

Some states with new political leadership are already expecting changes in their CIO or are coming off a string of changes in executive leadership.

In Pennsylvania, a state whose governor was term-limited, CIO John MacMillan stepped down a few weeks ago ahead of the transition in leadership.

Doug Robinson is the executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) and has himself been a political appointee and leader in public-sector IT. At NASCIO, part of his job is to offer best practices to incoming governors who are looking for a state CIO.

“I’ve already reached out to multiple transition teams,” he said, adding that he’s expecting 10 or 11 CIO transitions in the coming months.

This is fewer than in 2018, when many states saw transitions in IT leadership following an election cycle where 20 new governors took office.

While this system of political control over state IT systems may tempt CIOs to play the political game, they agree that is often far from being the best idea. In NASCIO’s annual survey of state CIOs, those surveyed indicated that being effective with politics was the least important skill for effective leadership.

“Unless you are already a master of politics, don’t be tempted to play. You will die, game over, no reset,” reads the NASCIO report.

Still, the job of state CIO should be to support a governor’s political agenda where they can without upstaging the person who appointed them, according to Robinson.

“The governor is going to come in with a policy agenda,” said Robinson. “If their policy agenda is education and educational attainment, then the CIO should be able to find ways to support that.”

Robinson added that it’s “very, very rare” for a candidate for governor to focus on technology, so CIOs should focus on where a governor’s policy platform intersects with technology in looking to support the other leaders in a state’s administration, particularly as citizens’ expectations increase for a more connected and responsive digital government experience.

One of the challenges Robinson said he faces in advising new governors and transition teams is breaking them out of the mindset that CIOs should be chiefly technologists.

“The major shift is the recognition that the CIO is the business leader for IT, not just your tech guru,” he said.
Andrew Adams is a data reporter for Government Technology. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communication from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.