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New Faces, New Skills: The Landscape of Today’s Public CIO

As a new class of state chief information officers takes the reins of IT across state and local government, they increasingly need to adopt a different set of leadership skills than their predecessors.

Our focus this month is on the ever-evolving role of the chief information officer. It’s an important topic given that CIOs are such a critical part of our audience, and it gets a lot of attention at our conferences and on our editorial platforms. The evidence is clear: The job of the CIO has fundamentally changed. Pure technology skills are still — and will likely always be — important, but not as important as they used to be. 

Technology leaders in government used to be focused on managing their onsite infrastructure, looking for efficiencies and building and configuring their data centers. But most CIOs are pivoting toward a much more public role. Smartphones in the hands of every resident paired with always-on connectivity have dramatically raised expectations from policymakers and the general public of what technology can do. CIOs need to be able to explain technology to people who don’t have their nuanced knowledge base. And they must know how to do so in a way that fosters understanding and support.  

A recent Center for Digital Government* survey, cited in our cover story, CIO of the Future: The Skills Government Tech Chiefs Need, validated this change in direction. Seventy-nine percent of public-sector tech leaders say their job has taken a turn toward the strategic in recent years, while 76 percent say that skills as a communicator are growing in importance. Also interesting is that more than half of respondents cite being a good negotiator and a good motivator as also important — likely not results that would have shown up a few years ago. 

And as far as the people occupying the CIO position, there’s been a similar shift. To gauge the degree of that shift, we’ve done some research on state chief information officers across the country, past and present. In this issue you’ll find the data generated by GT’s emerging data practice which chronicles the occupants of state CIO offices over the past 25 years. We looked at things like where state CIOs most commonly work before their appointments, where they go afterward, and how often CIOs rotate out after new governors take office. 

One particularly interesting element of the data relates to gender diversity. Colorado and Arkansas have had several female chief information officers — Colorado’s last three CIOs have been women — but they stand out in this respect. Overall, during the period we tracked, just 17 percent of state CIOs have been women. It’s an interesting statistic, and one that mirrors the findings of research conducted by organizations like McKinsey and the National Center for Women and Information Technology. 

At last month’s National Associaton of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) Midyear conference, Policy Analyst Laura Bate of New America discussed the organization’s recent report New Ways to Bring Women Into and Up Through Cybersecurity Careers, which offers some practical steps to help increase the number of women in cyber, specifically — a field notorious for its staffing gaps.

“Women make up less than one-quarter of the cybersecurity workforce, which can lead to less innovation, inferior design, seriously underutilized human potential and needlessly unfilled jobs in a growing field,” the report reads. “In short, this lack of gender diversity means poorer security.” 

“You need to be able to see people who look like you and understand there is a possibility to advance in that position and own it,” said Maria Thompson, chief risk officer for North Carolina, at the panel. 

As the role of the chief information officer evolves at all levels of government, it makes sense to work toward workforce equity in order to tap the ideas and brainpower available across the country’s vast, multi-dimensional talent pool.  

For more data-packed pieces (like local government procurement thresholds, the market trajectory of police body cameras and changes over time to state IT structures), visit

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter. Follow @GovTechNoelle
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