Head of the Class

The University of North Carolina launches a certification program to groom CIOs for success in city and county government.

by / August 31, 2005
In North Carolina, virtually every professional position in local government is associated with a certification program. Until this year, however, the position of CIO was a glaring exception.

For IT leaders in city and county government, lack of official credentials may cause problems. If government executives and elected officials don't understand what it takes to run an IT department, and top IT officials lack the certifications to prove that they do, the IT department may have a tough time getting support for IT initiatives.

Back to School
Starting this year, the Center for Public Technology, part of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Government, offers a Chief Information Officers' Certification Program. It's hoped the program -- called the CIO School -- will provide the official seal of approval that local CIOs and IT directors have lacked.

The center created the CIO School at the request of the North Carolina Local Government Information Systems Association (NCLGISA). In addition to certifying IT leaders as public-sector professionals, the program has a second goal, said Shannon Schelin, director of UNC's Center for Public Technology.

It's to teach IT leaders to work more effectively with government managers and elected officials, allowing governments to use IT more intelligently, Schelin said.

"Elected officials and managers invest in IT 'ad hocly,' and they don't follow the enterprise models that work best," Schelin continued, explaining that the CIO School provides the knowledge and tools IT leaders need to make the business case to policy-makers for the enterprise approach.

With the exception of July and December, the one-year certification program meets in Chapel Hill every month. Each month's session lasts two or three days and focuses on a different topic. The course assumes students already have the technical know-how to run an IT department, and therefore covers skills such as project management, risk management, strategic planning and communications.

More Than a Geek
Generally people who become local government CIOs rise through the ranks because of their technical proficiency.

"Then they get into a managerial role, and they lack many of the soft skills," Schelin said. "They aren't good at the basic things that make their jobs easier when they talk to elected officials, county or city managers, or end-users."

The North Carolina League of Municipalities (NCLM) is an adviser to the Center for Public Technology, and some NCLM staff teach courses at the CIO school.

"It's very difficult to get courses about how to manage an IT department," said Lee Mendell, director of information technology and research at the Raleigh, N.C.-based NCLM. "Looking at a CIO as more than just a technology geek is a very important step forward in improving the ability of local governments to take advantage of the transformational power of IT."

Schelin teaches about 75 percent of the courses. Guest lecturers -- including Mendell; Bill Willis, the deputy CIO of North Carolina; technology professionals from IBM and Delphi; and several mayors and city managers -- teach the remaining courses. Tuition is $1,350 for the certification program, or $1,800 for certification as well as UNC graduate credit.

To qualify, a participant must already work in public-sector IT, and with 33 students enrolled, the first class is full. The current group includes IT staff members who hope to someday run departments, and others who are already IT directors, Schelin said.

"Because this was the first course, and because Shannon wanted a lot of feedback on how this was going to work, many of the people in there are long-term CIOs," said Mendell. He said he expects that, over time, the majority of students will not be CIOs but potential CIOs.

"All the folks in the class right now who have staff under them want to send their staff next year," Schelin said.

That includes Mike Crowell, technical services manager of Salisbury, N.C., who has urged his operations manager to apply to next year's program.

"I imagine over the next several years, I'll probably have all of my staff sign up for it," said Crowell, a former president of the NCLGISA, and one of the local government CIOs who urged the center to create the CIO School.

Although his managers already respect his qualifications and he gets good support from elected officials, Crowell said he enrolled to gain concrete evidence of his professional status.

Best Practices
The courses expose Crowell to best practices that could prove useful even in a small IT department like Salisbury's. With a staff of seven direct reports and only 360 desktop machines to manage, Crowell said he doesn't have formal processes for areas such as project management and risk analysis.

"I thought this would be a good chance to learn a little more about those," he said, noting that though he might not formally implement risk analysis practices, he's leaning toward incorporating them more into the department's business cases.

The CIO School is evolving, Crowell said, predicting that next year's courses will be even better than this year's. One change he said he would like to see is a tighter focus on how IT works in small government organizations. For example, this year's courses contained a session on project management that focused on an eight-month project involving 200 programmers.

"I've got two programmers," Crowell said. "It's hard to take something that's applicable to a 200-person group and apply it to two people."

Schelin is receptive to feedback from participants, Crowell added.

"I've been pleased about what she's been able to accomplish because it's exactly what we had in mind when we started talking about it," he said.

For Schelin, one interesting aspect of the course has been seeing different responses from IT directors who have always worked in government, and those who moved over from the corporate world after the dot-com bust.

"The folks who come out of the private sector have a higher expectation of comprehension among leadership," Schelin said, especially when it comes to why a local government should implement particular IT systems. "They're also not used to the siloed approach of government, where the departments will fight tooth and nail to retain their data even if it means everybody's doing duplicate work, because that's where the power lies."

One of the course's tangible products will be a collection of business cases the students develop as a class assignment. The center will post this casebook on the Web so people who can't take the classes can benefit from those who do, Schelin said.

One student, a county IT director, wrote a business plan for class that has already made an impact in the real world, Schelin reported.

"He said, 'I took that same business plan to my officials and presented it in front of the commissioners, and I got all the funding I needed.' They came back and said, 'That was the most well written, nontechnical piece we've ever seen you do.'

"I think [students are] really starting to see positive benefits."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs