IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

NASCIO Day 2: Hard Transformations and ‘Soft’ Skills

State CIOs discussed not only the risk-taking and strategy involved in making major enterprise-wide changes, but also the people skills and communication tools necessary to create transformation.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. — Much has been said in recent years about the way the role of the government CIO has evolved from simply the IT director, who keeps PCs running and networks online, to a real leadership position, someone with a seat at the table. Nowhere was that more apparent than the second day of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) Midyear conference Tuesday. 

In two main sessions, state CIOs covered two topics that on the surface seem somewhat incongruent: the logistics of transitioning from long-standing single-vendor operations to multi-source systems; and “soft skills,” qualities that may be harder to teach but are immeasurably useful for anyone looking to drive widespread government change. 

The model of CIO as a services broker was the focus for North Carolina CIO Eric Boyette, who identified four forces IT leaders must reckon with as they move from one large vendor for services into a multi-supplier model: 

  • Political: make sure state leadership is on board with and understands that the investment to transition to a model of procurement and contracting is worthwhile
  • Marketing: understand that the market for government services moves much more quickly than it once did and how to react accordingly
  • Customers: acknowledge that citizens now expect government to work more like Amazon than their traditional DMV
  • Staff: ensure that IT talent is prepared for where the state is headed
It’s not an easy move to make, said Virginia CIO Nelson Moe: “Sometimes all you’ve got is a little courage and perseverance” in order to be able to “provide the best services at the right price in an adaptable format.” Moe said to expect a lot of hard work and growing pains; he suggested strategic timing of service migration, rather than making many big moves all at once, calling multi-source integration a “built-to-adapt model.” He echoed Boyette’s advice to make sure executive leadership and the legislature are on board and understand why the IT office is taking risks in transformation. 

“Communication early and often” with leadership was similar advice offered by Indiana CIO Dewand Neely in a later panel discussion on five traits key to a successful CIO: emotional intelligence, integrative skills, political savvy, relentless curiosity and a unifying vision. 

Coming from a strong IT background, Neely said, he has had to make an extra effort to not appear heavily technical, because getting cabinet members and legislators on board with IT efforts is key to generating enterprise change, and those leaders will likely not be familiar with the nuts and bolts of the CIO’s office.

While Neely characterized his best trait as political savvy, Utah CIO Mike Hussey credited his innate and persistent curiosity as his most valuable asset. He wants to know what “makes things tick” and also recommends leaders “lift their gaze.” 

It’s easy to get bogged down in the most immediate tasks that “we’re not seeing the art of possible,” Hussey said. It’s likely an attitude that keeps Utah on the leading edge of state technology efforts, like artificial intelligence and blockchain, among others. 

Further evidence of that leadership came when the 2019 NASCIO Technology Champion Award went to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. In remarks delivered by Hussey, Herbert credited the state’s IT team with being out ahead of many other states, a place to look to for what is possible in state government. 

All of what state CIOs at the conference do is ultimately targeted at improving the lives of state residents. Or as NASCIO President and Delaware CIO James Collins put it, speaking of the impact IT has on issues such as the opioid epidemic and facilitating health and human services, “technology not only improves the lives of the citizens in our state, but in many instances it saves lives.”

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.