What CIOs Need to Achieve Their Top 3 Priorities

CIOs won’t get anywhere without close cooperation with political leaders and agency managers.
September 2013
David Behen, CIO, Michigan. Photo by Jessica Mulholland. Photo by Jessica Mulholland
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

As editor of Governing’s sister publication, Government Technology, I spend lots of time talking to state and local CIOs about their priorities. Three issues routinely top the list: protecting data stored in government computer systems, building a staff with the right skills for today’s tech market, and figuring out smart ways to share expensive computer applications to cut costs. The common denominator for all of these challenges? Solving them demands close cooperation between CIOs, political leaders and agency managers.

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Here’s a closer look at how some jurisdictions are handling those challenges.

Cybersecurity. It’s no secret that data thieves have grown more sophisticated in recent years, particularly since organized crime has gone digital. Yet CIOs continue to complain that political leaders and top management officials view cybersecurity as a technology problem instead of a business risk that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. What’s more, industry experts worry privately that chronic underinvestment in security technology makes government agencies sitting ducks for professional cybercrooks.

But some states are getting it right. Michigan consolidated physical and cybersecurity operations under state Chief Security Officer Dan Lohrmann a few years ago, creating a coordinated approach to guarding government facilities and electronic assets. The state also is investing in new security programs like mandatory bimonthly security training for agency employees. And Michigan CIO David Behen says Gov. Rick Snyder, a former tech executive, personally ensures that members of his senior leadership team are current on that training.

There’s hope that leadership engagement in cybersecurity is spreading. A number of CIOs say the massive data theft from South Carolina’s Department of Revenue last year increased the political will to strengthen cybersecurity. That’s a positive sign, since cybercrime is here to stay.

Workforce transformation. Industry trends are changing the tech skills needed by states and localities. Growing availability and acceptance of cloud-based services means governments don’t need to own and maintain as much equipment. And CIOs need fewer computer operators and more contract managers, along with business analysts and data specialists who can help agencies work smarter.

Building this new workforce often requires updated civil service classifications and better wages to attract employees with the right skills. It also calls for retraining existing workers. These changes can be wrenching for employees and management, and implementing them demands solid executive commitment.

One of the boldest moves comes from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who approved a plan that overhauls the state’s IT job classifications and requires all 1,600 state IT employees to reapply for their jobs. In addition, the state committed $2.5 million annually for training that’s designed to develop and retain in-house technology talent.

Shared systems. CIOs have argued for years that individual states shouldn’t develop 50 different versions of systems that essentially do the same thing. Instead, they say, there should be a way to share systems for functions like Medicaid management or unemployment insurance that are common across states or localities. Today, technological improvements make shared systems more feasible. At the same time, the Great Recession pressured agencies to find alternative ways of building these systems, which can cost upward of $100 million to implement. But shared systems tend to spark procurement issues, turf battles and project management challenges that can’t be resolved without top-level attention.

Colorado, under Gov. John Hickenlooper and CIO Kristin Russell, is attempting to develop a model for collaborative systems. The state has several projects going, including an effort to build an unemployment insurance system that will be shared by four states. It’s part of a multistate initiative that also calls for sharing computer storage of mapping data, video and other types of information. Pioneering large-scale shared systems isn’t easy under the best circumstances, and it’s nearly impossible without big-time executive backing.

These may not be the only issues keeping CIOs awake at night, but they’re often at the top of the list. And to address them successfully, CIOs can’t do it alone.