Understanding Government CIOs’ Transforming Roles

By Paul Mandell and Patrick Flynn

Over time, technology has evolved from a tool for information processing to a communication channel to an essential relationship-building mechanism. This is particularly true with state and local governments where this transformation has changed the role of the CIO from a technologist to a strategic partner of other government executives. For those government CIOs interested in embracing this changing role to help their IT departments evolve in ways that enhance cross-organizational collaboration, here are three suggestions to help them get ahead—and stay ahead.

Secure a seat at the table and build strong relationships.
The manner in which technology has permeated all areas of government has changed the role of the CIO at its very core, requiring them to be organizational partners who think strategically. According to Greg McNeal, CTO for the State of Maine, “Budgets are flat and technology demands continue to rise.” The demand for technology capabilities is at an all-time high, but has the CIO earned a seat at the table to be a key player in strategic discussions?

A recent survey of state and local government CIOs conducted by Consero Group shows that almost half of these executives report directly to the city manager or board of commissioners, and nearly 90 percent say they have sufficient access to their executive leadership. The relationship between the CIO and the leadership team is invaluable, and it provides an opportunity for the CIO to become a strategic member of the conversation.

However, mere access to organizational leaders is just a starting point. CIOs must take it upon themselves to build stronger relationships with their executive leadership and peers to maintain and leverage their seat at the table. One obvious method is by attending board and departmental meetings. Another equally important method is to pursue informal opportunities to understand the needs, priorities and vision of the leadership team, such as during casual office visits. Both are useful ways to open the communication pipeline, as well as build the trust necessary for the CIO to have a major strategic impact.

Put your team in the middle of the action.
Not only has the widespread adaptation of new technologies changed the role of the government CIO, it has also changed the role of the IT department and, with that, the personnel skills and abilities required by IT to meet organizational demands. This change presents a series of unique hurdles in the public sector, including identifying top candidates, competing for talent with the private sector, and cross-functional training with a perpetually insufficient level of resources.

One useful method to make the IT function more attractive to prospective employees and accelerate the development of relevant skills is to physically locate your team within or in close proximity to other elements of the governmental organization. This will allow the team to truly understand the technology needs of the other functions, while providing new learning and growth opportunities. Moreover, you will signal to your peers in other departments that you are committed to putting your team to work for them by making the team more present and available than ever before.

Embrace collaboration with multiple partners.
Unfortunately, when battling against the private sector for top IT talent, the public sector can only do so much to mitigate its general economic disadvantage. In response, Maine CTO McNeal suggests the public sector should seek partnerships to address capability gaps. “Ultimately, we can’t compete so we outsource services that we don’t already provide or don’t have the resources to develop well,” says McNeal. “This is where the idea of cloud originated.”

Indeed, unlike the corporate world, government organizations operate in a non-business competitive environment, which provides an exponentially larger opportunity for collaboration. Partnerships between local government organizations, including city, county, police and fire, along with other non-business entities, such as universities, can create not just greater staffing capabilities but, when sourcing technology and services,  increased collective buying power. This is particularly important for state and local government CIOs, two thirds of whom recently reported in a Consero Group survey that they experienced no increase or a decrease in budget in 2013.

The volume of collaboration success stories has grown significantly over time, lending new ideas and approaches to finding solutions to a persistently tightening budgetary environment. As an example, Gig.U partners leading research institutions with local communities to provide next-generation broadband to citizens, and the State of Maine is working to centralize technology procurement so that local governments can take advantage of bulk prices. “We cannot afford to go alone anymore,” notes McNeal, “but we can partner with public or private organizations that have already developed the capabilities we need.”

What’s Next?

With the technology landscape constantly evolving, operational demands increasing, and budgets stagnating or decreasing, government CIOs are facing a unique and challenging moving target for their operations. Partnering with the rest of the organization and other outside entities, hiring and training cross-functional talent, and thinking creatively are a few ways to help one succeed.

About the Authors

Paul Mandell is the founder & CEO of Consero Group. To read his previous CIO Insight article, “ThreeTips for Avoiding a Budget Crisis,” click here.

Patrick Flynn is director of program development at Consero.

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