Five years of recession and recovery have been tough on government IT departments. Maintenance has been deferred, upgrades have been delayed and new projects have been put on hold. Where new initiatives have been launched, they’ve often centered on server consolidation and other cost-cutting measures.
It’s hard to quibble with efforts to save a few bucks, especially during a period when tax revenues were plunging. But those tactics don’t deliver the kind of breakthroughs that fundamentally remake government-citizen relationships or radically transform how agencies do business. That’s why four years later, with the economy slowly bouncing back, there’s evidence of pent-up demand among citizens and public officials alike for transformative solutions.
Indeed, several big-city mayors expanded their CIO positions this year to include a specific focus on innovation. Mayor Michael Bloomberg broadened the scope of New York City’s CIO post, renaming it the “chief information and innovation officer.” And Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter recast his chief technology officer position as the chief innovation officer, charging the post with improving the city’s digital quality of life.
Adel Ebeid, who was hired late last year to fill the revamped spot in Philadelphia, retains traditional CIO duties. But, speaking at a meeting earlier this year, Ebeid said he spends about half of his time on nontraditional activities, like engaging local tech companies in hackathons or mining social media feeds to better understand community needs. To accommodate these new tasks, Ebeid says he’s trying to get rid of some old ones. “I want to get to a day very soon where I’m buying services -- not computer hardware and software.”
Like Ebeid, a growing number of government CIOs say they want to get out of the business of owning and operating data centers and large complex systems. Instead, they’re looking to private service providers to deliver everything from computing power and data storage to email and business systems.
Part of the motivation for giving up what was once the IT profession’s bread and butter is to spend less time on daily operations and more time on innovative, high-impact projects. “CIOs see owning data centers as a boat anchor to progress,” says Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. The CIO profession has entered a transitional phase, he says, where many of these individuals are reexamining both the services they provide and how they provide them.
But not everyone is refocusing the position solely on innovation. Massachusetts recently created an innovation-oriented position in addition to the CIO. Tony Parham, a technology consultant and entrepreneur, became the state’s first government innovation officer in August. Parham works in tandem with John Letchford, the state CIO.
Both men are trying to inject more innovation into the state, but Letchford’s job is weighted toward improving internal operations while Parham’s efforts are pointed externally and often range beyond pure technology. Parham doesn’t carry the baggage of managing day-to-day IT operations. “He is definitely there to drive new ideas,” says Letchford. “I’m trying to do the same thing, but I also have 1,600 IT employees, and I need to make sure we’re getting the business of government done.”
After some tough years of retrenching and treading water, the new push toward innovation is refreshing. Yet learning to balance the old with the new may be the defining challenge for today’s CIO.
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