Seeking Cover

Riding out the ferment in the field

by / May 7, 2005
Reprinted with permission from the May issue of Government Technology's Public CIO

World views matter. They are the irreducibly complex understandings of how a person fits in their environment. They clash, and sometimes they can be reconciled. There are competing world views about geo-politics and religion that are the stuff of war, diplomacy and prayer. There are competing world views about smaller parts of the way the world works too -- including academic and vocational pursuits. All can create ferment -- that is, "agitation or turbulent change or development."

The last five years of angst over the public CIO's role -- played out repeatedly in myriad conference sessions, position papers, informal discussions and these pages -- parallel a little-known 50-year ferment in university-based communications research.

Following their greatest triumph -- namely important propaganda research that helped shape the outcome of World War II -- communications scholars were left to talk among themselves about whether their research was a discipline or a field, an undertaking that came to be known as the Ferment in the Field.

Those contending for a discipline argue for its unique ability to see and understand the world differently, and therefore worthy of the influence, prestige and permanence accorded to classic disciplines.

The other camp was content with a field as an ad hoc, loosely knit set of activities that may well devolve back into their constituent disciplines over time.

Following their greatest triumphs -- including date field remediation and e-government-inspired modernization -- public CIOs are similarly divided on the field versus discipline issue with a notable shift in makeup, from those convinced of the merits of the CIO as a discipline (and who are animated by those convictions, come what may) to those who find advantages in serving in the field.

In the last issue, this page observed "a movement within the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) to reposition the role of CIOs in a way that they would be less subject to the ebb and flow of politics. The impulse is understandable, but unfortunate. It signals retreat."

In a thoughtful response, NASCIO executive director Doug Robinson drew a careful distinction, writing in part, "I haven't detected a movement within NASCIO to retreat on the CIO model, but certainly a movement within the state members making these decisions.

"At the decision of the Executive Committee, the objective of having the CIO report directly to the governor was removed from our current strategic plan because NASCIO has little control over the political appointment process. It was a nod to reality, not acquiescing to a diminished role," Robinson wrote.

While "not backing off the enterprise and policy role of the CIO," Robinson said, "I have spoken with newly appointed CIOs who prefer being protected by a department or Cabinet head and not on the firing line. I don't know if this is a trend or a cycle. The reality is [that] in the states, one size does not fit all, and some are more comfortable in not being a Cabinet-level appointee."

Clearly the environment has changed. By any measure, it is discernibly cooler than during the halcyon days of the late 1990s. And as the cold winds of the next storm began to blow, those in the field simply sought cover.

Even though the public-sector IT community has done in five years what communications scholars took 50 years to do, their experience is a cautionary tale as public CIOs move forward.

Surprised that hard-won success had not elevated the nascent field of academic inquiry to old-school respectability, the community of scholars turned inward amid neurotic claims and boisterous counterclaims about the "withering away" of this once promising life's work.

What the communications researchers missed, but public CIOs need not, is that campaigning never ends -- anyone who comes to play has to win the right to be heard, issue by issue, time after time.

The quest for identity has distracted from doing real work for a half century and has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy -- always standing in the way of a legitimate shot at becoming a discipline while, by its nature, tipping the scale toward eventual devolution.
Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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