Advice for State CIOs: Make IT Interesting

New CIOs need to learn the importance of marketing technology to leadership.
June 2015
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Tod Newcombe
By Tod Newcombe  |  Columnist

When Doug Robinson meets an incoming IT director, he often has to provide a reality check. “I tell all new CIOs that information technology is not important to governors; it’s only interesting.”

Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), has had to do that a lot lately. Between appointments by new governors, changes in existing administrations, and resignations and retirements, there are 14 new state CIOs this year. And they’ve arrived at a time when the use of IT has never been as important as it is now.

Fortunately, CIOs have a golden opportunity to show how investments in technology can make state and local government more responsive as well as more efficient. Some states, like Utah, have moved quickly to offer citizens new online services. Others are beginning to take advantage of cloud technology. A growing number of states are using high-end analytics software to sift through mounds of data to ferret out tax fraud or improve the performance of a state program, such as human services.

Still, CIOs must confront a number of challenges if they hope to modernize state government. First, there’s the perception that technology costs too much. Complex procurement rules have created an environment in which states rely on large-scale technology projects. These mega projects take too long to develop, end up costing more than was budgeted, and either fail to perform as expected or don’t work at all.

Then there’s cybersecurity. The threat of data breaches has become a major concern among state CIOs. The best defense against cyberthreats is seen by CIOs as a combination of the latest technology and a well trained staff. But states can’t compete against the private sector when it comes to offering top-dollar salaries for skilled cybersecurity specialists, who are in high demand.

Indeed, maintaining a well trained staff of technology engineers and managers may be the biggest challenge for CIOs. Low pay and hiring freezes, coupled with a wave of retirements, has left many state IT departments struggling to find qualified candidates who are willing to work in government.

While there’s no single answer to all these problems, it does help if state CIOs have the authority, oversight and governor’s attention when it comes to how they invest in and use technology. The most successful CIOs are those who have a close relationship with their governor. It is even better if the CIO is also a member of the governor’s cabinet, says John Thomas Flynn, a former state CIO for California and Massachusetts. Just more than half of state CIOs report directly to their governor, according to NASCIO’s Robinson.

CIOs also need a good working relationship with state legislatures. When Darryl Ackley became New Mexico’s CIO and secretary of the Department of Information Technology in 2011, he was surprised by how steep the learning curve was in terms of working with the body. “I considered myself reasonably familiar with the process, but boy was I not,” he told Public CIO (Governing’s sister publication). “Anyone who hasn’t been in state government before is going to have a simplified view of what is involved.”

There are a few ways to keep the legislature, governor and other state leadership interested in IT matters. To start, it helps to get some small wins early -- solid accomplishments in year one show governors and legislatures a CIO’s leadership ability and business acumen. When troubled projects are involved, CIOs need to be transparent and honest. They also should take care to learn from their predecessors. And it helps CIOs when selling a project to speak in business terms, not tech jargon. Robinson mentioned “innovation,” “reform” and “broadband” as the kind of terminology that resonates with governors. “Very rarely do they want to talk about IT projects,” he says.

At the same time, however, new CIOs also need to explain to their leaders that technology is changing. “It’s less about owning computers,” he says, “and more about brokering computer services that can help states perform better.”

What doesn’t work, says Robinson, is when CIOs are perceived as managers who work behind the scenes. “What’s important,” he says, “is that today’s CIO be recognized as a business leader and adviser when it comes to information technology.”