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What’s Next for the CIO?

As outside forces reshape how IT interacts with government agencies, the role of CIO must evolve. But how?

Like the leader of an itinerant rock band, Doug Robinson has been traveling the country on what he calls his “Forces of Change” tour. “I don’t have a T-shirt or backup band,” said the executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), “but disruptive change has been the theme of all my presentations.”

Public-sector CIOs are grappling with a wide range of forces outside their control that are re-shaping how IT interacts with the government agencies they serve and the public. One of the most disruptive changes Robinson sees is a business model shift from an owner/operator model to a hybrid world of shared services, declining mainframe utilization, and the move to cloud services, both public and private. That means the CIO position is morphing from pure technology delivery to a business leader of IT focused on vendor management and enterprise architecture. “Their job is shifting from building things to identifying the best software as a service or commercial service out there and configuring those,” Robinson said. “It is not a reduction in the relevancy of central IT, but rather a natural shift reflective of the marketplace.”

As CIOs come to grips with how their roles are changing, they reach for different metaphors to describe their new responsibilities. Some say it is like being the conductor of an orchestra, others like an air traffic controller. Craig Orgeron, executive director of the Mississippi Department of IT Services, sees himself as pivoting to become more of a broker of solutions. “I think of it as technology as a service,” he said. “It is fundamentally changing the way we do business.”

CIOs used to focus on aggregating demand from agencies to drive prices down. But with cloud services, that value proposition has moved, and it changes the dialog. “You can’t say anymore that if we get a lot of volume, it might drop the price down,” explained Orgeron. “In reality, an individual agency may be able to go to an Amazon or Azure and get the same deal as the state CIO with the entire state in tow. That is the key to talking about this pivot. I have to have a different value proposition. So here is the question: If volume and unit price aren’t key anymore, what is?”

Evolving Expecations

Anne Roest, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), believes that internal customer expectations are a disruptive force she has to respond to. The ubiquity of the cloud and mobile technologies means that customers expect technology to be easy to use, fast and inexpensive.


Internal customer expectations are a disruptive force that Anne, Roest, CIO of New York City, has to respond to.


Government has lost its tolerance for multi-year high-cost projects, Roest said. “You can no longer tell someone that a software project is going to cost $100 million and take five years,” she explained. “We have started to reorganize DoITT to focus on what I would call higher-value services: consulting and integration as opposed to building a server or setting up a network. There are now services out there that can provide those things — they are commoditized.”

Her team has created a new enterprise architecture and solutions group. “Their job is to figure out exactly what the customer is asking for and find a way to get that for the customer, whether it is a service we provide or an infrastructure we host or a cloud service or something another agency has. It is no longer about owning or building it. In fact, we are seeing that that is generally not the answer as we start down this path.”

A Shifting Skill Set

Teri Takai, senior adviser at the Center for Digital Government,* said that for many years CIOs have had to decide what they should do in-house versus what should be outsourced to vendor partners. That part is not new, said Takai, who has served as CIO in Michigan, California and the U.S. Department of Defense. “The challenge CIOs are facing today is how to make those decisions in a thoughtful and measured way and to recognize that for a period of time, they are going to be running in a hybrid environment, which then brings cybersecurity to the forefront, in terms of how you are going to protect data in that hybrid environment.”


Mississippi CIO Craig Orgeron sees his role as evolving to become a broker of solutions.

The shift from provisioning technology to becoming a broker of a much broader array of solutions requires a different skill set from the CIO and from the IT staffers who work for them. “We need to take a two-pronged approach to get the organization ready to be the kind of service provider we want it to be,” Roest said. “I need people who are architecturally smart and who know the technology landscape outside of my agency, like what services Amazon and Google provide.”

Second, there has to be a change in how IT team members communicate with customers, she said. “Customer service and creativity are not something you generally look for when you build out infrastructure support organizations. So those two shifts — a cultural change in how we view our customers and the technology skills mix — are things that have to be done at the same time, or this won’t work.”

To find people with those new kinds of skill sets, CIOs must adjust their hiring to the new reality. “It is a difficult pivot,” said Brenda Decker, former CIO of Nebraska, and now director of Global Government Industry for IBM. “We went out and hired programmers and people who ran mainframes and put data centers together. The world has moved on from that, and it is not what CIOs and their teams are being asked to do any longer.” CIOs need people who can make intelligent decisions about what to move to the cloud and how. “If anything goes wrong,” she said, “guess who is going to take the blame?”

CIOs have to get better at bridging the technology/business gap and explaining decisions in a way that not only a chief budget officer and the finance organization can understand, but that legislators can understand as well, Takai said. It increases the pressure on CIOs to reshape their organizations and what skill sets they need in their organization. You need to find people who can blend business and technology skills. “You need data analytics skills within your organization. Not only are those people hard to come by, but they are expensive and hard to justify.”

So has the reorganization she has begun changed what Roest spends her time on day to day as CIO? “Absolutely,” she said. “I am doing a lot more organizational change management than I used to do. I spend a lot of time thinking about organizational capacity, training plans, and a lot less time managing infrastructure. I spend time thinking about how we implement a vendor management plan. My job has become much more about change and much less about stability.”

"Data as a Strategic Asset"

CIOs also are under pressure to up their games in the realm of governance, data quality and analytics. You can see that increased focus reflected in detailed IT strategic plans, Robinson noted. “Data as a strategic asset was not previously mentioned in the CIO’s plan because they were focused on networks and infrastructure, maybe architecture to a degree, but we are seeing more of them focusing on data now.”


IT chiefs like Missouri's acting CIO, Richard Kliethermes, are looking to unlock the value in siloed applications.

Missouri Acting Chief Information Officer Richard Kliethermes agreed that more than ever before, CIOs are expected to unlock value in siloed applications. In fact, a key priority of Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is eliminating unnecessary silos, he said.

Take, for example, Missouri’s departments of Health and Senior Services, Mental Health, and Social Services. In many cases, they have data specific to the same individuals, Kliethermes noted. “What are the opportunities for bringing together the data those agencies collect in their systems on the same Missouri citizens to solve problems — both unique to one department and holistically as well?” he asked. For instance, emergency room visit data shared between agencies could help them intervene in some cases with supportive services.

Even within one agency there may be silos to overcome. Missouri is two years into a master data management effort with the Department of Natural Resources. “We are trying to use technology and data governance so that if a significant change is made to an entity, all the programs regulating it would know,” Kliethermes said. Part of that is helping the agency understand committee structures, and data steward roles and responsibilities. “You have to have a solid governance structure,” he added, “or it all falls apart.”

Expanding the C-Suite

Making the job transformation more complex is the fact that CIOs are learning how to collaborate with myriad new “chief” titles related to information technology — chief information security officers, chief technology officers, chief data officers and chief innovation officers, some of whom report directly to a governor or mayor. The growth in these titles is in response to the increasing digitization of society and business, said Rick Howard, a research vice president at Gartner, where he focuses on public-sector IT solutions, management practices and technology trends.

“CIOs have moved to unlock business value with an understanding of analytics, of making their organization more citizen-centric. Someone like a chief technology officer is often in charge,” Howard said. Sometimes, however, the roles and responsibilities are fuzzy. “You just have to get clarity on where the duties overlap and where they are distinct and have different mandates. Who is going to take the fall when a huge data breach happens? It depends. If your open data program has unwittingly not redacted some sensitive information, the chief data officer would. But if somebody has hacked into your servers at the state-owned data centers, then the chances are it will be the state CIO.”

During Tony Encinias’ tenure as CIO of Pennsylvania, the governor created an innovation office and a chief innovation officer who reported directly to the governor. “I had a good relationship with him. He would come to my office and ask about ideas he heard from agency-level people that touched on IT, and I would support him in any way I could,” recalled Encinias, who is now vice president of public-sector strategy for cloud solutions provider ViON. “The metaphor I use is that the CIO has to be the conductor of an orchestra when it comes to the chief data officer, chief innovation officer, chief information security officer and chief privacy officer. The CIO has to be the conductor because everyone has their own agenda, but at the foundational layer, they all depend on enterprise IT for their success.”

Three years ago, New York City appointed its first chief technology officer, a peer position to the CIO. The current CTO is Miguel Gamiño, who came to New York from the CIO position in San Francisco in 2016 to develop a smart city and Internet of Things strategy. Roest said the relationship is working well because the administration made sure the roles are clear and it hires people who understand teamwork. “We CIOs need to learn to let go,” she said. “There is enough work for all of us.”

But there are pros and cons to these new jobs. It is not a bad idea to have someone like a chief innovation officer who has the ear of the front office, said Takai. “The problem is that those individuals tend to be shallow in their understanding of technology. They could make the CIO look bad by oversimplifying what could be done and that could create an adversarial relationship,” she said. CIOs should embrace the new person and try to form some kind of partnership. “But so far I have not seen that happen. I have seen these positions created almost deliberately to cause that conflict, and I think that is unfortunate because it is a missed opportunity to get the best of innovation coupled with the individual who has to make things happen.”

A Question of Timing

Adding to the challenges that public-sector CIOs face is the fact that the average tenure is less than three years. Gartner’s Howard said one problem is that budget cycles and election cycles are out of phase, so CIOs have very short windows of opportunity in the life cycle of an administration to come in with a mandate to initiate change that is important to the agenda.

It becomes a question of timing and the ability of the CIO to deliver value in much shorter time cycles than they used to, Howard said. “The large [capital expenditure] projects that take three or four years to run and require legislative approval and oversight are becoming less and less the norm, and it is more about creating quick, six-month projects and agile development or modular acquisition of these services,” he noted. “Now your skill is how quickly you can come up with a solution that demonstrates some value to the elected or appointed officials and build that credibility to keep moving forward.”

On the other hand, IBM’s Decker said that trying to make quick changes without a solid foundation could be dangerous. “I worry sometimes that CIOs try to come in and make sweeping changes in a hurry, but the building blocks were not in place before they got there,” she explained. “There may be a crumbling underneath it, because they are gone before it can get implemented.” 

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