CIOs Branch Out--And In

A growing number of local agencies--and even a state legislature--are hiring CIOs to bolster their top management teams.
January 2004
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

At a time when children are learning in computer labs, taking Japanese and Russian language classes via distance learning and doing their research on the Internet, the people who manage school systems need technological as well as pedagogical sophistication. To keep up with the rapid changes technology brings to education, the Virginia Beach City Public Schools hired a chief information officer. Ramesh Kapoor's job is to advise the school district on computer issues, tend to its data and infrastructure needs and help integrate technology into the curriculum.

Strategic planning for technology did not exist in Virginia Beach schools before Kapoor came on board. Now, the CIO is part of the superintendent's leadership group and participates in the decision- making process. "Anything that happens in schools, exam schedules or whatever, it doesn't matter what the initiative is," says Kapoor. "I get involved in all policy discussions to see how technology can help achieve goals."

Kapoor is part of a growing movement to place CIOs in agencies and have them become part of the management team. In addition to several large school districts, some local housing agencies have brought their own CIOs on board--and so has at least one state legislature.

For the Atlanta Housing Authority, which announced its new CIO position in November, the reason was simple. "So many of our challenges revolve around technology," says Renee Glover, the authority's president and CEO. As owners and managers of what is in effect a large, diversified real estate company, the agency was looking for best practices and objective standards for top-flight performance. As part of its commitment to transforming itself, the agency decided to buy services from a firm that specializes in the methods and protocols for dealing with inventory and best practices.

With that approach in place, the agency realized it was essential to have a technologically sophisticated reporting system that could track developments in contractual agreements for housing at any point in time. That is one reason why the housing authority hired Nicholas Farsi, an information technology executive with more than 20 years of experience in telecommunications, e-commerce and Web hosting. One of his jobs is to make sure reports on financial and operating records can be generated on demand, since the agency also has a responsibility for reporting to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and financial institutions.

As the agency continues to transform, it is counting on technology to dramatically improve customer service. Farsi also is looking into a customer service system that will help alleviate caseload ratios that now run 400 clients to one counselor. If more agency employees could have access to a client's records, they could help a caller with basic information, thus freeing up counselor time for the more personal assistance families need.

The new CIO for the Massachusetts legislature, Val Asbedian, sees many reasons for a lawmaking body to put a CIO in place. States are in constant competition for economic development, and communities want to provide the best environment for businesses that rely heavily on the Internet, telephone, satellites, wireless and other telecommunications equipment. A governmental body that is responsible for writing laws, funding projects and giving tax breaks should have an understanding of those business needs. "For the legislature to participate in the economic development of a state, it needs to have an appreciation of the role of technology and how it supports economic development," says Asbedian.

In addition, technology has increasingly become part of the business of the legislature itself, with e-mail and electronic bill tracking systems and laptops growing in number. When laws mandate that documents need a signature, that now can mean digital as well as pen on parchment.

Asbedian points out that legislators don't have qualms about hiring a lot of budget people to crunch numbers for them and look at interest rates and employment issues so they can budget well. "The same thing," he says, "should occur in the technology area."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |