Taking Care of Business

State and local CIOs assume greater roles in economic development.

by / April 16, 2002
When the Boeing Co. met with Chicago officials about moving its corporate headquarters to the city, one of those at the table was CIO Christopher O'Brien. Running point for Mayor Richard Daley's ambitious technology agenda, O'Brien helped sell the aerospace giant on Chicago's credentials for the Internet economy.

"One of the things we really wanted to do was show that this is a city government that is modern and efficient," said O'Brien. "Mayor Daley promotes the use of technology to improve government operations and quality of life in the region. My role was to show that it isn't just talk."

That's a role that O'Brien and other CIOs say they are playing more often. O'Brien estimates that he spends a fifth of his time promoting Chicago's growing technology prowess to business leaders, community groups and news media.

In negotiations with Boeing, for example, he highlighted Chicago's GIS-based tools for locating available office space, electronic permitting applications for speeding dealings with city regulatory agencies and a nationally recognized 311 telephone system for connecting citizens with non-emergency city services. But perhaps the biggest draw for Boeing was CivicNet, a sprawling public/private initiative to run high-speed fiber-optic cable to every Chicago neighborhood.

"I think CivicNet appealed to them - the fact that we are looking to wire the city and provide broadband services not only to all businesses, but also to homes and communities," O'Brien said. "This is a major step forward. It shows that Mayor Daley is willing to take risks in promoting technology and making it happen."

O'Brien said CIOs are ideally positioned to paint the big picture of their jurisdiction's technical capabilities.

"The CIO is one of the very few government officials that has an enterprise-wide scope. Specific agency heads are well versed in their own area of expertise. But myself and my staff are working in all of these departments, so we understand how it all fits together," he said. "The investments that we've made in technology over the past five years have been responsible for some big improvements in service. Somebody who understands that needs to get out and communicate that message."

Ultimately, that message helped convince Boeing to move 500 top corporate staff members into a downtown Chicago office tower. Officials contend the $51-billion company's decision to locate its world headquarters in Chicago - over competing offers from Dallas and Denver - helps cement the city's status as a business capital.

At the Forefront
O'Brien is not the only CIO who's spending more time marketing his jurisdiction to potential employers. Formal economic development responsibilities are part of the job for secretaries of technology in Virginia and Colorado. And to varying degrees, similar tasks are creeping onto the to-do lists of top technology officers in other states as well.

Aldona Valicenti, Kentucky CIO and chairwoman of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), said CIOs find themselves at the forefront of technology issues that are critically important to industry. For example, government Web sites and electronic services - the primary responsibility for most government CIOs - often form the first impression of a state for prospective employers. CIOs also spearhead development of statewide privacy and security policies that broadly impact businesses.

High-level CIO involvement in these matters signals a commitment to the Internet economy, Valicenti said. "It's an indication of how savvy the state is. I think [companies] look to the state's Web site to see how the state does business. If it does no transactions electronically, the conclusion many times is this state is not going to be easy to work with from a regulatory perspective."

The same is true on the local level, according to David Molchany, CIO of Fairfax County, Va. He said business leaders seek electronic transactions that benefit their companies and help them retain valuable employees who will be asked to relocate.

"Companies, especially high-tech companies, probably have high-tech workers who are expecting to deal with a high-tech government," he said. "Going online and looking at a great Web site with lots of transactions and information - that's going to be quite a positive."

Molchany said private industry's interest in electronic services has pushed him into a tighter working relationship with Fairfax County's Economic Development Authority. It also prompted the county to pay close attention to the needs of business during its latest Web site redesign, he added. "We did multiple focus groups with citizens and businesses through the Chamber of Commerce to ask them, 'Is the information on the Web organized right for you? What's missing? What transactions do you really need?'"

Beyond Infrastructure
But the CIO's role encompasses more than building an e-government infrastructure, according to Virginia Secretary of Technology Don Upson. He said economic development should rank among a technology executive's primary responsibilities.

"To me, electronic government is really a catalyst for change to bring together communities of all sizes and businesses of all sizes and engage them in a robust economic environment," he said. "It's not just about getting services to citizens more efficiently; it's about building the quality of life."

Upson, whose post includes one of the broadest economic-development mandates among state IT executives, spends about half of his time actively marketing Virginia and Virginia technology businesses both domestically and abroad. He has traveled with Virginia business leaders to England, Egypt, Mexico, Germany and other locations.

"The whole point is to increase the visibility of Virginia," he said. "We're not there to make the deal. But we believe that if we take business leaders over and put them in an environment where they're working with the business leaders in other countries, they'll figure out business. And we can help create that opportunity for them."

Other state CIOs also directly market their state's IT capabilities and technology climate to potential employers and others. In Kentucky, for example, Valicenti regularly speaks to local government and business leaders about technology issues.

"When I took this job, there was a very clear charge from the administration: 'Not only are you going to work internally from an efficiency and effectiveness perspective, we want you to become a spokesperson for the state on technology issues,'" she said. "Information technology has become a key enabler to how business is run, and it's a key component of how we market our state."

The Have-Nots
Unfortunately, the trend toward greater CIO involvement in business issues hasn't filtered down to smaller communities, said Patric Zimmer, owner of Development Advisors Inc., a North Carolina-based site-consulting firm. Companies looking for a new home clearly want to hear about a jurisdiction's technology policies, he said. But outside of major metropolitan areas, there's usually no high-level IT executive to talk to them.

"A lot of these communities have people who are in charge of the technical side of their operations, but they are not necessarily what I would call a CIO," said Zimmer. "They're charged with maintaining networks and keeping things up and running. They're much more reactive than proactive."

Zimmer acknowledged that many small cities and counties can't afford to hire senior IT executives, but he said failure to address industry's IT infrastructure concerns can be disastrous to recruiting efforts. High-speed telecommunications connections and other technology capabilities have become just as important to employers as basic infrastructure such as roads, water and sewers, according to Zimmer.

"I can give you example after example of communities that spend millions to create business parks, and no one has thought about the telecommunications infrastructure," he said. "Quite frankly, that can be an eliminating factor. It could literally cost them a $30 million project and a couple hundred jobs."

Zimmer said smaller communities should consider joining forces to hire a seasoned technology professional to oversee IT planning on a regional basis. "I don't think most communities have quite figured out how important this is going to be moving forward," he said. "It sets them apart from the competition."

Silicon Prairie?
Commitment to technology appears to be helping Chicago stand apart from the crowd. A recent University of Minnesota study claims Chicago is home to more high-tech jobs than any other city in the nation.

Public policy professors at the school found nearly 350,000 technology-centered jobs spread across pharmaceutical, medical instrument, engineering and services industries located in Chicago. That's more than IT employment hotbeds such as San Jose, Seattle, New York or Boston.

City officials add that luring Boeing - perhaps the nation's premier manufacturer - to Chicago only whets their appetite for more Fortune 500 companies. And as the city works to attract those high-tech employers, its CIO expects to occupy a prominent place at the negotiating table.

"I think executives in government are trying to put their CIOs more in front of this issue and use them as an indicator of how much the city 'gets it' in terms of technology," said O'Brien. "The mayor needs to be able to show people how his vision is being turned into reality."
Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

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