Automation Is a Dirty Job

CIOs aren’t Mike Rowe, but their job can get really dirty at times.

by / May 22, 2013
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Meet Mike Rowe, public CIO. Actually, no — that episode of the longtime host of Dirty Jobs was never shot. But just because the CIO’s role doesn’t fit neatly into the premise of the show — a celebration of skilled labor — doesn’t mean that CIOs don’t have dirty jobs. Yes, it’s a management gig or, if you do it right, it is about thinking, leading and innovating. That said, if new technologies bring the promise (or threat) of disruption, CIOs can hardly play the role of disrupter without the attendant mess splashing back on them.

In real life, Rowe testified before Congress on the genesis of the Dirty Jobs TV series on the Discovery Channel, saying, “It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought.”

The stuff of government is made at the intersection of a deliberative legislative process and modern technologies. That puts public CIOs, CTOs and their kin in the kitchen when the sausage is being made. The often-paraphrased caution that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made,” suggests that the transition from manual and mechanical processes to their digital successors can be off-putting.

So despite glass house data centers of an earlier era and the idiosyncratic tendency among some computer scientists to wear lab coats, the work of the CIO is buggy, grungy and downright difficult. CIOs have had to be truth-tellers to tradition-bound government institutions that needed to change — and were about to change — whether they were ready or not.

Indeed, a quick review of the last 15 years provides multiple reminders of what happens when digital technologies and automated processes are applied to the work of government. Central stores, a longtime fixture in government for provisioning agencies with office supplies, furniture and equipment, have been outsourced to online providers. At the other end of their useful life, surplus property is now liquidated through online auctions. Paper has had a rough ride during the modern CIO era. Many state printing and mail operations have been downsized or shuttered altogether as volumes declined with a deliberate shift to digital communication channels and online forms to support routine transactions between government and the public it serves.

Online bidding and contract management, automated license renewals and one-stop business renewals have gone a long way to increase capacity and improve accuracy within the bureaucracy and shorten lines and wait times for businesses and citizens.  

Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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