The Public-Sector CIO's Changing Tasks (Opinion)

CIOs evolve as problem-solvers, not just procurement managers.

by / October 20, 2009

As the economy continues to wobble its way out of the most severe recession since the 1930s, the role of government and technology only grows in importance. This fact hit home when I attended a technology conference in Washington, D.C., in September. The Gov 2.0 Summit was billed as a showcase for government as a platform for new applications that, according to its producers O'Reilly Media and TechWeb, will deliver information and services in a fundamentally new way.

Judging by the large, enthusiastic crowd and big media presence, it felt at times like a rock concert, with several leading federal figures as the rock stars. In particular, federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, federal CIO Vivek Kundra and White House Open Government Initiative Director Beth Noveck led the way for the public sector. It was a sound reminder of the fast and significant rise of IT leadership within government.

Several years ago, the public CIO was beginning to morph into a change agent - a somewhat uncomfortable role that implied transition at a time when government was still comfortable in its guise as the sector still firmly set in the Industrial-Information Age. Today, however, the role of government has taken on new significance, as society turns to the public sector for guidance and support in a way few thought necessary not so long ago. The new administration in Washington is firmly committed to moving government into the digital age and has the technology leadership to get it started.

With that change, the CIO's role has changed too. More than ever, many people, both within government and without, expect to see leadership from the public sector's top IT executive. Chris O'Brien, a columnist with the San Jose Mercury News, pointed out that under Kundra, federal CIOs have become problem solvers rather than mere procurement managers. That's a change that will impact leadership quality and style over time.

For CIOs who report to the CEO of their jurisdiction, the effect is evident. They're helping governors, county executives and even the president identify opportunities that exist for IT, and are poised to move government to a new level of performance.

But the role of leader for public CIOs is rather new. Leadership isn't part of the training that goes with learning IT management in college or on the job. The ability to communicate to a broad spectrum of decision-makers and stakeholders takes time and experience. So too does the relationship-building skill one needs to navigate and survive the political world.

This issue's lead story presents a look at a how some CIOs have stepped into the leadership role, what their experiences have been and how they try to keep their leadership skills. What we learn is that the path to leadership is never straight, nor easy. California CIO Teri Takai readily admitted that her first efforts as a manager and leader were dismal failures. But she and others like her learned from their mistakes and tried repeatedly, and eventually succeeded.

We also learn that the kernels of leadership are planted early on, often subconsciously, by mentors who have a positive influence. They may include fellow professionals or family members. In the case of Steve Emanuel, CIO of Montgomery County, Md., it was from his stepfather, who "had a very trying life" and yet managed to teach Emanuel the value of always doing his best no matter the circumstances.

The role of CIO as leader will continue to evolve over time. But it's never too early to start down that path. Hopefully the stories and resources for understanding the elements of leadership in Public CIO will be a helpful start.


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO