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Speaking to the Business of Government: A New Role for CIOs

Decision-makers in government got a crash course in the importance of technology as the pandemic took hold over the past few months. CIOs must now make themselves indispensable in bridging the gap between policy and technology.

by Teri Takai and Phil Bertolini / September 30, 2020
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It is September and fall is in the air. Who would have thought that you all would still be grappling with the fallout of the pandemic? You were forced to change so quickly while ensuring that citizens could access the services they needed. Cyberattackers were still on the prowl while your teams were scrambling to enable a remote workforce. Leadership was thrust into the forefront of it all and you all got it done. Will your leadership reward you with additional status in the organization or relegate you to a simple provider role? We are reminded of the lyrics from an oldie but a goodie, the song “My Way.” This particular verse resonated with us as we began pondering the role of the government CIO post pandemic:

Yes, there were times. I’m sure you knew,

When I bit off more than I could chew.

But through it all, when there was doubt,

I ate it up and spit it out.

I faced it all and I stood tall,

And did it my way.

You did do it your way and, hopefully, your leaders were right there with you. There have been longstanding debates as to the role a CIO plays when moving government forward. The discussion is rich with anecdotal success stories from around the country about CIOs going above and beyond to make their governments successful. We recently held two very successful digital summits where this conversation flourished and provided a deeper understanding of where government is headed. Government CIOs from the state and local level spoke openly about their roles and gave a glimpse into their futures.

We believe that this is a pivotal moment for CIOs and for IT organizations. Government leaders, who might not have recognized the role of technology in the past, are now painfully aware of how technology will drive their organizations from this point forward. But are CIOs and IT leaders ready to come out of their operational roles, learn to speak the business of government, and be on the front lines of serving citizens in the future?

We would love to state that every CIO is seated at the "big table," playing a vital strategic role in getting things done. We would love to state that government leaders just "get it" when it comes to valuing technology leadership above all else. But we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that all leaders believe that technology is essential to their success. For those that are true believers, you will go farther than you ever expected. For those that do not believe, we need to talk.

To all the leaders out there working hard to serve the citizens while evaluating the role that technology will play, government technology leaders are an incredible asset. You have a broad knowledge of government operations in the most detailed ways. You work hard to build relationships with your peers to grow an understanding of how things get done. You have a unique way of breaking down problems into manageable chunks to provide the tools that benefit the organization. But, it is easy to get caught up in the "language" of technology rather than the "language" of the business.

CIOs and technology leaders need to become better listeners and partners. It is never technology for technology’s sake, but it can come across that way to our agency partners. You need to translate the art of the possible in terms of what technology can bring to help the agencies, not the other way around. You can’t bring technologies and ask where they can be applied. You need to show agencies where you can make their jobs more efficient and bring more value to citizens. You need to embrace the technology ideas that come from your agencies, rather than always be the one who says no.

CIOs know that everything in government today has a technology component to make it work. The CIO needs to earn their right to be in the same discussion with the leaders of the organization and the rest of the C-suite. The CIOs we talk with all agree that their role is vital to the organization’s success. We agree and are working to evangelize this message to help make governments better — to both the CIOs and government leaders. 

The pandemic proved that technology is critical in ensuring government services can be provided in a digital, remote way. The value of technology has risen, and funding sources are becoming available to get stuff done. The CIO is a valued strategic position that brings all of the parts together — people, process, and technology. We are reminded of a quote from Peter Drucker:

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Government technology leaders are out there creating a future where people get what they need, when they need it, where they need it. Listen, empathize, learn, and keep bringing the right solutions at the right time. Keep moving forward and we are here to help you.

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