States Slow to Pick Tech Leaders

Many new governors are in wait-and-see mode on their state CIO and the structure of their technology bureaucracy.

by / January 27, 2011
Tom McKeith

Doug Robinson never thought it would take so long to find out who would lead each state’s technology department. But three months after the gubernatorial elections, the executive director of NASCIO is still waiting.

Robinson has witnessed a number of election cycles and administrative transitions, but none have been quite like this: Twenty-seven new governors — the biggest crop in history — took office this winter, according to the National Governors Association. And as of Feb. 1, only 10 governors had permanently filled their administration’s top technology job. The wheels of bureaucracy in this election cycle are moving more slowly than in the past, Robinson said. There are several possible reasons for this.

Plagued by Policy Decisions

Substantial budget pressures and revenue reductions are plaguing most states, forcing new governors to immediately confront serious policy decisions such as how to operate and fund programs like Medicaid, and how to deal with the sunset of Recovery Act funds. Some transition teams also are reappraising the basic structure of their government, Robinson said, and considering how departments can be combined, reorganized or eliminated to improve efficiency and save money. And states like California are dealing with furloughs and the specter of staff reductions.

Many gubernatorial transition teams are having these fundamental discussions not just for their technology department, but for all state agencies.   “I think all of those things have overwhelmed these new administrations to a degree,” Robinson said.

CIO Stature Uncertainty

Given that kind of uncertainty, some states are likely finding it difficult to recruit qualified candidates for the CIO role, Robinson said. Candidates might shy away from accepting the position if there’s doubt about who their boss will be or what agency they will work for.

About half of the state CIO positions in the nation are cabinet-level posts, but that number could change if states decide to reorganize. A CIO conceivably could be recruited as a cabinet-level appointee, Robinson said, but later have the position moved beneath a finance secretary or department of administration. State CIOs prefer, as a group, to stay in the cabinet because it gives them an equal voice with their peers on decision-making.

“Some of these states are recruiting for CIOs,” Robinson said, “but with all that uncertainty, the candidates for those positions are probably saying, ‘I really ought to give this a second thought as well.’”

Choosing the Right Candidate

Nebraska CIO Brenda Decker thinks there’s another reason states are taking longer than usual. The new governors realize IT is no longer a back-office function hidden from public view — it’s evolved into a strategic priority. “So I think there is a lot more thought process going into making sure they have the right choice in the position,” she said.

The delay is having a tangible effect on Decker’s work. Nebraska is nearly surrounded by states with interim CIOs and new governors. “A lot of the things we do, especially in our border towns, we try to coordinate with the states that are near us,” she said. “For example, in Nebraska I’m in the eastern corner of the state [in Lincoln], so for the things I’d like to do in the western side of the state, I’d like to collaborate with the other state governments.”

But interim or empty CIO positions in several of those states hamper collaboration efforts. “You just don’t find anyone willing or able to make decisions when they’re not in a permanent position and don’t have the governor’s confidence or ear,” she said.

Furthermore, national efforts like electronic health records and health information exchange may be delayed without a full slate of state CIOs. States are putting themselves at a disadvantage by not having that one strategic partner with technical expertise in the room, Decker said.

Clarifying the CIO Role

Some states are probably deciphering what exactly the new CIO will manage before making the hire. Washington and a few other states are considering big changes to how they deliver IT. Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire floated a proposal to create a new state IT agency, and a permanent CIO hasn’t been hired because lawmakers haven’t ironed out the particulars. Other states, meanwhile, are mulling enterprisewide IT outsourcing and/or consolidation to cut costs.

These new approaches could result in different day-to-day emphasis for the CIO. The role could change around service delivery options. Increased outsourcing and contracting — and the move to cloud computing — could mean CIOs will spend less time in the operational world and more time in the policy and strategy realm, Robinson said. The trends indicate that state IT work forces are being reduced, but states have the same or a growing demand. Consequently states may have little choice but to supplement with contract services, outsourcing and staff augmentation, he said. “If you do that, the CIO will spend more time in negotiation and managing vendor relationships.”

Vacancies in the CIO ranks prompted NASCIO to push back its traditional orientation program for new CIOs a month to mid-March. But Robinson still isn’t certain the association will have a full roster by then. Some new governors might decide to leave interim CIOs in place for as long as a year, given that there are so many other issues to address first. Seventeen states had acting CIOs as of late January — an abnormally high number, according to Robinson.

Six states and U.S. territories had named new technology chiefs as of Feb. 1: Guam’s Ed Cruz, Georgia’s Calvin Rhodes, Pennsylvania’s George White, New Hampshire’s Bill Rogers, Michigan’s David Behen and New Mexico’s Darryl Ackley. New governors also had retained Oklahoma’s Alex Pettit, Tennessee’s Mark Bengel, Alaska’s Anand Dubey and Rhode Island’s John Landers.

The retentions in Tennessee and Rhode Island were unusual, Robinson said, because there was a party switch in the governor’s office.

Given the slew of challenges that state governments face, more new administrations might choose not to make leadership changes. “It indicates they have confidence in the abilities of the CIO to continue to execute on the strategy, vision and the operational side,” Robinson said. “In the same vein, it indicates there’s nothing that needs to be fixed, so the administration isn’t going to use the partisan platform to make a switch.”

Until some executive decisions are made, however, Robinson will continue speaking with transition officials about position selections. “We’ve been waiting for some movement,” he said, “but it’s been slow.”


Matt Williams Associate Editor
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