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Government CIOs Say It's All About Relationships

Ohio IT leaders discuss the evolving nature of the CIO position at Government Technology’s Ohio Public Sector CIO Academy.

COLUMBUS, OHIO — As the nature of the CIO position within government evolves, a new skill is becoming increasingly vital: building relationships, both in the business world and internally within agencies that haven’t typically been associated with technology and innovation.

Featured panelists discussed relationships in detail on Monday at Government Technology’s Ohio Public Sector CIO Academy 2018, which included IT executives from Ohio’s state government, as well as from municipal governments in several Ohio cities. Networking has, of course, long been instrumental for most leaders, both in and out of government, but what the Ohio panelists stressed is that networking for technologists might seem at odds with what was once thought their core mission.

For years, CIOs or their past equivalents were akin to auxiliary IT professionals, thought of as folks who ran their computer environments in a vacuum, crossing over with other agencies only when those agencies had a computer or technology issue for which they needed expert advice. In modern government, as in modern business, CIOs and other tech leaders now serve as champions for change and innovation.

As such, the panelists said, they must have the skills to build connections with useful vendors, elected officials and even prospective hires.

“You need to build your circle wider and wider,” said Doug McCollough, CIO for Dublin, Ohio, “being able to widen your circle and recognize that if you are the leader of an enterprise you’re going to have to have relationships way, way down the field, and you’re going to have to develop those intentionally from day one.”

Those relationships could be with a vendor, who will one day have a product a CIO will have to purchase and skillfully champion to agencies so that their everyday staffers on the ground buy-in to it. Or, those relationships could help a CIO establish trust and credibility with elected officials and department heads, who might come with a question and need to be directed to someone knowledgeable outside the government.

Culture change is nuanced work, they said, driven by credibility, trust and establishing oneself as an all-encompassing resource for innovation. It’s also crucial to build relationships with vendors, experts or lobbyists who have resources and perspectives to offer.

“There’s a lot of dot connecting that goes on,” said Ohio CIO Stu Davis. “We just do it and watch it happen.”

Relationship-building skills also prove quite useful when CIOs must assemble their IT and innovation teams. Ervan Rodgers II, CIO for Ohio’s Office of Attorney General, moderated a panel and compared teams of government technologists to the TV show’s A-Team, in that they are essentially a set of disparate skills being convened in service of a common goal.

Nathan Huskey, CIO for Ohio’s Department of Health, said he uses an A.B.C.D. acronym to guide his approach to assembling his team, with A for ability, B for breadth of skills, C for capacity to do the work and D for diversity. Sowjanya Valluri, CIO for Ohio’s Office of Budget and Management, also stressed the importance of diversity, saying that hiring people who think like the leader will generate a sort of monotony of ideas, which can be anathema to innovation work.

The goal with this sort of team-building approach is to mirror what’s being done in business, because the lines between business and IT functions in modern government have become so thoroughly blurred.

“In a healthy organization that can move quickly,” Huskey said, “you’d want there to be little to no lines between business and the IT shop.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.