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State CIOs Shift Away from Direct Operational Responsibilities (Opinion)

The sands of public-sector IT are shifting as state CIOs get a seat at the cabinet table.

by / August 17, 2011

Technology eventually upends everything. In 1975, Eastman Kodak was the fifth-largest company in the S&P 500, but the last roll of its iconic Kodachrome film is now a museum piece. The Flip camera democratized video in a shining moment before being eclipsed by smartphones and made into a historical footnote by a new owner. Friendster and Myspace pointed to the potential of social media without delivering on it themselves. And before IBM and Apple rallied and re-created themselves, corporate obituaries were written for each of them.

A recent New York Times editorial mused about the next corporate behemoth to go the way of Kodak and which might be the next Google, citing “the ease with which new technologies emerge to challenge the most entrenched colossus.”

That’s what makes them so promising and threatening. They don’t fit in some of the best made plans — sudden, convulsive, disruptive change wrought by technology doesn’t fit neatly into the Baldrige Criteria or other performance measurement schemes focused on continuous, incremental improvement. Elected officials pursue the former as states and localities struggle out of the fiscal crisis — and the organizations they lead tend to embrace the latter.

In many states, elected officials seem increasingly convinced that their IT organizations have Kodak-like problems, so they do the one thing that’s within their grasp — they restructure. Consolidation is a perennial favorite for administrations convinced that there’s more money to be squeezed out of IT budgets. In an apparent bid to become the public-sector equivalent of Ford or General Motors in the comeback category, a number of states have gone further, rolling IT into larger reforms. 

Through a difficult three-year process, California finally established its state CIO as a Cabinet-level official. Hawaii established its first state CIO this year, while Oklahoma moved to strengthen its state CIO role, which was created last year. North Carolina sees promise in the Virginia and Georgia playbooks, where operational responsibilities and risk were shifted to partnering vendors. It’s also worth noting that a single company now runs almost half of all state portals.

Citing the progress made by new leadership at the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) in realizing operational efficiencies, Gov. Rick Perry bought the agency more time to reinvent itself. In vetoing the DIR’s sunset bill, Perry set out his expectations for improved IT procurement, an active and focused executive branch role in data center consolidation, and continuing consultations with DIR customers and the comptroller in addressing issues raised in the Sunset Commission report.

Then there’s Washington state, where the Department of Information Services was merged out of existence. The department’s computing and telecommunications utilities were combined with the state printer, motor pool and other operational components of the departments of General Administration and Personnel, resulting in a new Department of Enterprise Services. The new department carries with it a mandate to contract out more and more of its services each year combined with restrictions on collective bargaining for its IT employees.

The Washington state CIO is now nested with a small policy staff in the governor’s budget office. While at arms length from IT operations, the next appointee will inherit the challenge of finding a workable operating structure for the newly completed and oversized $255 million data center, which was designed and built based on now obsolete technology assumptions.

All told, these shifts have resulted in a 15-year high in the percentage of state CIOs that have a seat at the Cabinet table (84 percent) and a 15-year low of state CIOs with direct operational responsibilities (70 percent). The widening gulf may be the natural outworking of the new turnaround-focused conventional wisdom. The delinking of policy and practice may also inadvertently diffuse accountability for whether and how well the new approaches work.

Paul W. Taylor is chief content officer for e.Republic. Taylor previously served as the deputy CIO of Washington state and as chief strategy officer for the Center for Digital Government. He has worked in the public and private sectors, the media and Washington’s Digital Government Applications Academy.

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Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the chief content officer of Government Technology and its parent organization, e.Republic. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO. Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet startups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the nonprofit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. He is creator, producer and co-host of the GovTech360 podcast.

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