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CIO of the Future: The Skills Government Tech Chiefs Need

As chief information officers at all levels of government take a wider, more enterprise look at their role than in the past, it is becoming increasingly important that they are more than just tech-savvy.

In 2011, when Mark Raymond was first appointed chief information officer of Connecticut, the No. 1 tech priority in state government was hardware virtualization, according to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). Raymond, who was recently re-appointed by incoming Gov. Ned Lamont, found that much of his time was spent doing just that: virtualizing the state’s technology, moving a data center, anything to improve the technical efficiency of the operations, he recalled. 

Today, his work with the state is much different. “I now spend the majority of my time talking about the value of the services we provide or the investments we are making,” he said. “It’s more about helping citizens and businesses and less about the technical aspects of the operation.” 

The changing role of Raymond’s job reflects what has happened on a broader scale in government IT. The era of virtualization, data center construction and overall operational efficiency is waning. The mass consumerization of technology has shifted IT’s role from its primary back-office function, serving government workers, to one in which it is expected to enable a broad range of new services that can be downloaded onto smartphones and provide citizens with personalized experiences. 

To help make this happen, CIOs need to have a broader, more enterprise view of what their government does, and it’s beginning to happen, according to Teri Takai, former state CIO of Michigan and California, and now the director of the Center for Digital Government (CDG).* “Whether they are exerting influence or have actual statutory authority, or just through their ability to build relationships, CIOs are making progress in terms of driving IT from an enterprise perspective,” she said. 

Along with viewing the work of IT across an entire government, CIOs have also seen their role become more strategic. In a recent survey of state and local CIOs conducted by CDG, 71 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that their role has become more strategic in the past three years. Only 37 percent felt that being a technologist was the most important leadership trait of today’s public CIO.

A New Set of Skills

Stretch your memory back a dozen years or so, and you will remember a very different IT landscape. In 2006, Amazon launched AWS, its cloud computing service. A year later, Apple introduced the iPhone. It’s hard to understate the impact of these two technological innovations, which have shifted both the private and public sectors away from building or buying software systems and running them in their data centers to something far more diffuse, according to Graeme Finley, a principal at Grant Thornton Public Sector.

“There’s been a migration underway to a multi-vendor, multi-source environment,” he said. “This means the skills and requirements of a CIO have to change as well. As much as anything, the role is about customer relationship management, or contract management, where you are dealing with various providers as well as customers.”

At the state level, this shift in emphasis for IT has put a premium on CIO skills that come from a business background rather than traditional public-sector work experience. “We are seeing more CIOs come in from the private sector, or have some private-sector experience,” said Takai.

What states and some local governments are looking for are CIOs who are less technologists and more adept at communicating and relationship building. Phil Wittmer, former chief information technology officer of Kansas, and a CIO with 30 years of experience in the private sector and current public-sector adviser at Ensono, found he had to invest heavily in communications during his tenure. “I went so far as to hire a communications director and a legislative liaison,” he said. “It was necessary because of the diversity of audiences you have to communicate with in your role as CIO.” 

For Raymond, the skill CIOs need today goes beyond being a good communicator. “Now, it’s a little bit like an evangelist,” he said. “You need to be the person who is creating, or translating the vision of how  technology can help into the context of  the agency heads. Each one has their own vernacular, which you have to learn and understand.” 

Raymond made a point that is often overlooked, but bears emphasizing as CIOs work to redefine who they are, what they do and why they are so important to the government enterprise. “There’s no one in government who by default has this broad view of the citizen and how they are touched by all the services that government provides,” he said. “So, the CIO really needs to share and communicate the vision of what the future of government looks like and how technology plays a role, not to replace anyone, but to enhance what they do.” 

Another skill today’s CIOs require is something Takai calls executive presence. “This is the ability to feel confident to approach the governor’s office, to approach cabinet members and to do that on an equal basis, in which the CIO makes recommendations for cross-agency initiatives.” CIOs need to figure out how to have a seat at the table, even if they aren’t part of the cabinet, she added. “It’s more than good communication and relationship skills, it’s having executive presence and expressing yourself as an equal, in order to take that next step.”

With Security Comes Strategy

If there’s one IT trend that embodies the changes CIOs are undergoing and is indicative of who they are today, it’s cybersecurity. In 2011, NASCIO ranked cybersecurity seventh as a strategic and technological priority. Today, it is the No. 1 priority at the state level and, based on other surveys and reports, it’s a top priority for local CIOs as well.

Cybersecurity has forced CIOs to change how they handle infrastructure and has raised the importance of pursuing solutions at the enterprise level. “Cybersecurity has led to a recognition that having scattered technologies and not looking at them coherently and cohesively is a showstopper,” said Takai.

Luis Taveras, CIO of Buffalo, N.Y., called cybersecurity his biggest challenge when he became the city’s IT head last year. “Today, I feel much more comfortable where we are with our cybersecurity platform, but the challenge I faced was with the legacy applications, some of which hadn’t been upgraded in decades,” he said.

Raymond also spoke of cybersecurity as pivotal to how his state began to view technology. “Cybersecurity is like recycling: You can’t do it unless everyone is involved,” he said. “Cyberthreats aren’t a tech issue for technologists to solve. It’s a business risk that requires behavioral changes to reduce future risk.”

With cybersecurity as one of the key catalysts, the role of government CIO is becoming more strategic, helping governments prioritize the best way to govern and deliver services in today’s digital age. Mike Pegues became CIO of Aurora, Ill., after holding an executive IT position at Morgan Stanley. Pegues was appointed by the city’s mayor after a long discussion on how the city, the second largest in Illinois, could leverage its assets to trigger more economic growth. “Aurora has good assets, including a fiber-optic network and its own high-value data,” he said. “These were the foundations for a smart city, but the city’s technology had to be reorganized and made more enterprise.” Making that happen required the city to rethink how it used technology. The best way to do that, according to Pegues, was to think like a business, a skill he had from working in the private sector.

Since his appointment in 2017, Pegues consolidated spending on IT, getting rid of little-used applications, and has saved the city $2.3 million. He has also emphasized the need for public-private partnerships, “because the city isn’t going to be the innovator,” he said. “That’s a fact of life. We have to partner with the right people and organizations to get ahead today.”

Aurora’s bet on technology to help the city generate economic growth reflects a national trend. IT budgets are growing, with more than 70 percent of respondents to CDG’s CIO survey saying their IT budget has increased over the past three years. However, it may not be enough to trigger the kind of digital transformation envisioned by public leaders. Despite budget growth, 63 percent of public CIOs said their IT budget isn’t meeting their department’s needs, according to CDG’s survey. Another concern is the inability of appointed and elected officials to see IT expenditures as an investment. Just 21 percent of CIOs said their policymakers view IT as a value generator, according to CDG.

Meet Government’s New Broker

Until 2007, the way consumers interacted with technology was pretty much the same way it was done since the 1990s: They sat in front of a PC, purchased software programs they needed or they surfed the Web. But the introduction of the iPhone changed forever how people use technology and what they expect to happen when they use it. “Consumer technologies have pushed expectations,” said David Cagigal, CIO of Wisconsin. “It’s on our phones and it appears that it didn’t take much to create apps, which seem to appear and pop up almost instantly,” he said. “The speed with which these solutions are being delivered has conditioned the consumer to ask for a lot more and to expect a lot more, and in some cases they expect it to be free.”


Wisconsin CIO David Cagigal points to high customer expectations as a new challenge for today's government IT leaders.

It’s taken a little while to reach the public sector, but the disruptions brought on by high-powered mobile computing are now at the front door of government and are beginning to change things in a big way, but the change won’t be easy.

“CIOs are struggling with the proposition that the consumer has expectations about how long it takes us to implement services using our infrastructure,” Cagigal pointed out. “That’s a big concept and change we have to deal with; it takes states so long to implement new services compared to the private sector.”

To reduce the amount of lead time for new services and to make government more flexible in how it adopts and implements software tools, CIOs have begun turning to a service broker business model. More than half of the states are downsizing their data centers, according to NASCIO’s 2018 state CIO survey: “The trends show that the dominant business model across state government is one of a CIO organization operating as a shared services broker that leverages as-a-service models to deliver on their service portfolio.”

The reason this is happening and why CIOs need to pay attention is because it makes sound business sense. Phil Wittmer, who has made it his business to focus on the economics of IT, says that whenever an organization takes on an IT project, it has to ask: What is the business value? “Are we advancing the ball financially or just trying to modernize?” he asked. 

Takai echoes this principle. “Building your own applications is becoming more and more difficult,” she said. State and local governments are also hampered by the challenges of attracting top IT talent to develop customized software programs and retaining skilled workers who can sustain those applications.

Accelerating this trend is the fact that so many companies are building SaaS products that are exclusive to the state and local market, reducing the need for cities and states to build their own software. “And if new development is needed, it’s very much being done using a cloud provider to host it rather than in a data center,” said Takai. 

In addition, CIOs will need to determine when they should build and when they should buy. They will become the integrators of solutions — bringing together software solutions with customized applications to integrate the data and present the services to the citizens.

The Constraints Battle

For local governments with tight IT budgets, the service broker model fits well, given the plethora of new “smart city” applications that are launched almost daily. “I’m not a big believer in building applications these days,” said Buffalo’s Taveras. “There are so many solutions out there that we can go and get, rather than build ourselves. Finding the talent to build and maintain applications is hard, so we don’t do that these days.” 

But Taveras, like just about every CIO in state and local government, is constrained by the inability to dismantle and remove costly legacy applications and hardware. For states, the problem can be exacerbated when a mainframe is running three or four major agency systems and two of the agencies decide to modernize and take their application off the mainframe, sometimes leaving just one agency to try and finance the cost of running an expensive computer system that is decades old. 

In some cases, government CIOs can find a way to bolt on a modern front end to a legacy application in order to meet the growing expectations of citizens who want easy-to-use, mobile solutions. But shifting to a service broker model calls for meshing a trend that is subscription-driven with a tradition in government of financing IT as a capital expenditure. Budget officers must be on the same page with CIOs if this is going to happen. The procurement system also has to understand this new, somewhat complex method of purchasing technology. It’s no longer about buying widgets, said Takai.

CIOs have also struggled to get IT governance right. Wittmer says governance needs to hit on four dimensions: organizational, policy, financial and contractual, but that’s not always the case in government. “When I was state CIO, I found my authority for those dimensions were all over the map,” he said.

CIOs have the further challenge of adjusting to what is considered success in their jobs. Previously, it was about projects done correctly and on time, and making sure outages were minimized. It was all about what was going on in the back room with the servers and networks. “Now, success is in bringing a vision that allows us to operate while fundamentally changing and function with a new set of constraints and citizen expectations,” said Raymond. “If we are not evolving quickly enough, then we may have to find someone else to do the job.” 

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.