A Balancing Act for Public CIOs

Innovate, but don’t forget the basics.

by / December 13, 2013

Since the inception of Public CIO, we’ve tracked and sometimes debated the evolution of CIOs in government. Lately we’ve focused on the tension between operations and innovation. In other words, is the CIO’s job to keep critical systems up and running, or is it to seek out game-changing new technologies and techniques?

The answer, of course, is usually both. Although some jurisdictions have created chief innovation officer positions, most public CIOs need to balance the operations and innovation sides of their jobs. A survey of state CIOs at the NASCIO Annual Conference in October in Philadelphia shows how hard that balancing act is.

A third of respondents said they spend up to 90 percent of their time simply keeping the lights on. More than 40 percent said they spend as much as 75 percent of their time on such tasks. On the other hand, half of respondents said they spend a quarter of their time or less on innovation, and almost 30 percent said they spend just 5 percent or less of their time on innovation-related activities.

That’s a real problem for public CIOs, given the growing demand for innovation from the nation’s mayors and governors — not to mention from citizens and businesses.

A couple of the nation’s savviest public CIOs — both from local government — were on hand at the meeting to talk about how they’ve tipped the balance in favor of innovation, and their experiences hold lessons for others coping with the challenge.

Adel Ebeid, who is both CIO and chief innovation officer of Philadelphia, recommends reducing your operational footprint by moving to the cloud. “Don’t rush into it, but have a cloud-first strategy,” he said. “Look for ways to shrink your data center; it takes away from being innovative.”

And once you clear some time for innovation, focus on what really matters, he added. “We talk about innovating with intent. If it’s not improving people’s lives, it’s not worth doing.”

Boston CIO Bill Oates said it was important for his city to create a new group within the IT department that serves as the “front door” for bringing innovative ideas into the municipal government. That group, the widely publicized Office of New Urban Mechanics, reports jointly to Oates and the mayor’s chief of staff.

“There may be a need for some level of separateness for innovation, but the reason shouldn’t be that the CIO doesn’t support innovation,” Oates said.

What makes this issue so tricky is that you still need to do both sides of the job well. Public CIOs may need to tip the balance toward innovation, but they can’t afford to ignore the basics. In fact, both Oates and Ebeid noted that your success with managing operations has a direct impact on your ability to innovate. “You won’t have credibility in innovation if you can’t run core services,” Oates said. “Our credibility led to funding conversations with the mayor and City Council to build the projects we wanted.”

All of this may point toward the ultimate role for public CIOs: change managers. In the future, we may talk less about individual pieces of the job — and less about individual pieces of technology for that matter — and more about how they all fit together.

“We’re evolving to be a digital business,” Oates said. “It’s about using all of these tools — data, mobility, the cloud, etc. — to become more effective. That’s change management.”

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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