Turnover Questions

When so many state IT leaders leave, does it suggest a need to overhaul the CIO concept--or just make adjustments?
June 2004

A decade or so ago, only a handful of states had CIOs. When a state decided to create the position--as, eventually, most did--it was taken as a sign that technology was finally considered by the state's top political leaders to be valuable to the operations of state government.

Today, CIOs in several states are among the highest-paid state officials--if not the highest. Some CIOs are leaders of their own technology departments and have cabinet-level status. When Virginia Governor James Gilmore took office in 1998, the press conference announcing his top technology leader received greater coverage than any other cabinet-level appointment he made.

Given this kind of red-carpet reception and high-level acceptance of CIOs, I am puzzled--as are many others--by the recent spate of CIO departures that has been occurring. What started out as a trickle last year has now picked up momentum, with CIOs leaving in the past few months in such states as Arkansas, Florida, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Vermont.

Some believe this is an indication that the CIO management model in state and local government is breaking down. Maybe, even, that CIOs have lost their mojo. If that's so, does that mean the CIO concept needs a complete overhaul or only a new look and fresh coat of paint?

On the surface, the departures certainly suggest that the good ship CIO is in bad shape. But a more in-depth look at what's happening doesn't support this. What it reveals is that the CIO model is in the midst of some serious growing pains which, if not addressed, could set back the states.

Unquestionably a state is better off having a CIO than not having one. A CIO creates a single and statewide point of accountability and responsibility for technology leadership. CIOs and their staffs have moved far beyond the days when the technology office was viewed primarily as a services-driven organization. Statewide technology leadership has become an essential part of the management structure of state government.

One of the most difficult decisions in setting up a CIO governance model in a state is in determining overall organization status and location. Specifically, whether to grant the position cabinet-level importance and where to place the office in the statewide management structure. In fact, state CIOs today are distinguished more by where their office is located within the bureaucracy--and to whom they report--than they are by their titles and roles. While the CIO title is now commonplace, there is tremendous diversity across the states in CIO organizational status and location.

Early on, it became conventional wisdom that the CIO should serve at the highest levels of state government. While there is little question that a CIO certainly needs to operate at a senior level, what has not yet been convincingly demonstrated is the need for the CIO to report directly to the governor. As a matter of fact, having such a reporting relationship may be contributing to the high number of departures.

A number of states, such as Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio, locate the CIO office in a state department of administrative or management services. Others, such as Alabama, California and Oklahoma, house the CIO in the finance department. And still others place the CIO in the personnel office, the commerce department, the budget office or, in one case, the Department of Library and Information Services. But the larger trend has been for the states to establish independent departments or commissions of technology and give their CIOs high- level, statewide visibility, which is what Kentucky and Virginia do.

Organization location and status, as I see it, contribute to the high turnover in CIOs. That's because the greater the visibility and exposure of the CIO office, the more essential political skills are to its success. And the greater the concomitant challenge is to find the right person for the job.

The current CIO hiring trend is to seek out a proven executive from outside of state government. Yet one can't help but be surprised at the number of CIO resignations by those who had no previous significant exposure to the highest levels of state government before they took the job. Could it be that the states are setting their new CIOs up for failure by putting executives in charge who are inexperienced in government and, in some cases, simply politically tone deaf?

In addressing the problem of state CIO turnover, it is important that the political leadership not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The position of CIO has proven itself. For the foreseeable future, it needs to stay. The elected leaders in a state just need to do a better job finding the right home for the CIO position--and then tapping the right person for the job.