Powering Their Way Up

CIOs pushed to become cabinet-level appointees -- but it doesn't always work out.
April 1, 2009
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

This has been a big decade for state technology officers. First, they took on a more august title - Chief Information Officer. Then, with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers leading the charge, they agitated for cabinet-level status, a move that was successful in a number of states.

Before we send out a congratulatory tweet, there's one question that needs to be answered. Could it have been a mistake to push for cabinet status?

There's been some rethinking on this question, particularly by CIOs who were ousted when new governors took over. It can be especially difficult for those who worked their way up to the top rank. For instance, Missouri's Dan Ross had been with the state for 38 years but was forced to leave with the departing administration of Governor Matt Blunt.

Cases such as Ross' aside, NASCIO pushed for cabinet-level status for a good reason: A top-rank position turns CIOs into players difficult to ignore. If they report directly to governors, they can initiate lasting changes in how IT is governed.

In these economic times, a CIO's influence can be critically important. Investments in government technology, argues former Wisconsin CIO Matt Miszewski, produce a multiplier effect for economic recovery. To make that case effectively, a CIO has to be visible before legislators.

On the other hand, political changeover after elections can kill big IT projects when the CIO is shown the door along with the governor. Just ask Larry Singer, Georgia's first CIO, who served under Governor Roy Barnes. Singer led a high-profile effort to have a private contractor consolidate the state's telecommunications systems, a nearly $2.9 billion endeavor. Arrows started flying over the risks, the funding and the authority for such a proposal. The result? In 2002, when Barnes lost the election, the project - and Singer - were out.

For that and other reasons, there can be value in having a CIO who does not possess cabinet status. Alabama CIO Jim Burns is a merit employee whose position is not contingent on the governor's will. The key advantage is continuity. And, Burns believes, the state is likely to get a more qualified candidate if he or she is recruited, screened and hired by the personnel office, based on experience and credentials, rather than chosen as a friend of the governor's.

Another disadvantage of a CIO reporting to the top executive: When a cabinet-level CIO faces resistance to a project from an agency head with equal authority, the governor is forced to referee. Most governors don't have the time or the inclination for that.

In Virginia, CIO Lem Stewart has staying power but in a unique way. Stewart signed up for a five-year stint as the head of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which is responsible for IT governance, operations and procurement. He enjoys more job security than the governor, who serves a single four-year term. Prior to Stewart's arrival, the IT leadership changed every four years, creating the "burden of great cultural chaos," he says. Stewart's contract allows him to stick around to help the technology agency undergo a smooth transition.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com