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Why Government CIOs Should Have a Seat at the Strategy Table

As the pandemic has unfolded, technology has proved its value as never before. There is much more to be done, and IT leaders should have a role at the level where the big decisions are made.

Back in the early spring, as outbreaks of the coronavirus began to devastate communities, government's technology community was called upon to pivot and innovate. It did so with unprecedented speed and great skill, standing up in a matter of days systems that might have been expected to take months or years. Who would have thought then that states and localities would still be grappling with COVID-19 as we move into the fall, or that relief from the disruption of this deadly public health crisis would not be likely until at least mid-year 2021?

But here we are. Government IT will be called on to build on the work that has already been done, finding new ways to support and enable vital services ranging from health care to education to public safety. In the near term, one of the greatest challenges will be seeing that the technology that underlies November's elections runs smoothly and securely. Never has the need for chief information officers and other IT leaders to have a seat at the table where top-level decisions are made been clearer.

The response in the pandemic's early days illustrated the public-sector tech community's untapped capabilities. Government offices were forced to move suddenly to remote work while ensuring that citizens continued to receive the services they needed. As public schools closed their doors, education was transformed by distance learning. Meanwhile, IT leadership and staff protected against cyber-attackers who would prey on the vulnerabilities of a newly remote workforce. IT leadership was thrust into the forefront, and they got it done.

But there is still so much to do. The current situation has taught us two important lessons: One is that top leaders — governors, mayors, county executives and other policymakers — will need to continue to provide public employees and citizens with, and improve on, the technology that was rapidly deployed in response to the crisis. The second lesson is that in the pandemic technology has fundamentally changed the way government functions. It has transformed not only where millions of government employees work but also what citizens need and expect from government. There is no going back.

That's why it is particularly important now to bring technology leaders into every strategy discussion. There have been longstanding debates as to the role a CIO should play in moving government forward. The discussion is rich with anecdotal success stories from around the country, stories about CIOs going above and beyond to make their governments successful. We recently held two very successful digital summits where this conversation flourished. Government CIOs from the state and local level opened up about their roles and gave a glimpse into their futures.

We would love to be able to report that every CIO is seated at the "big table," playing a strategic, vital role in getting things done. We wish we could say that all of government's top elected and career leaders get it when it comes to valuing the work of technology leadership and staff. But we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that all leaders believe that technology is essential to their success. Those who are true believers will go further than they ever expected. For those who do not believe, we need to talk.

Our message to all the public officials out there working hard to serve the citizens is this: Technology leaders are incredibly valuable to your team. They have a broad knowledge of government operations in the most detailed ways. They work hard to build relationships with their peers to grow an understanding of how things get done. And they have a unique way of breaking down problems into manageable chunks to provide the tools that benefit the organization.

Just about everything in government today has a technology component to make it work. Why wouldn't you want the technology leader at the big table when the big decisions get made? The CIO should be in the same discussions that require the CEO, the CFO and the rest of the C-Suite.

Meeting the challenges of the pandemic has shown as never before that technology is a vital component in ensuring that government services can be provided efficiently and effectively in a remote work environment. Funding sources are becoming available to get more stuff done, and the CIO is in a unique strategic position that brings together all of the parts: people, process and technology. No one can predict how things will play out in a pandemic and post-pandemic world, but government's top leaders should always keep in mind the wise advice of the management philosopher Peter Drucker: "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

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