State chief information officers are handling much more than just tech
In state government, the role of the CIO has evolved to center on the business of IT, rather than the nuts and bolts of computers. It’s something that new governors will have to keep in mind.
Rewind a decade or two, and it wasn’t unusual for state chief information officers to be seen as primarily tech gurus, running teams that oversaw mainframes and other in-house computing technology that kept the gears of government turning.
But that view of the job has been dissolving in recent years as more state government technology is outsourced to the private sector and as software and data shifts to the cloud.
As a result, some of the more prized skills these days for state CIOs center on areas like managing vendors and contracts, building strategies for how states will adopt new tech, and knowing how to effectively communicate with agencies, legislators and budget officials.
“They are the business leader of IT,” Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers told Route Fifty during a recent conference the group held. “Technologist is very low on the list, in terms of a core competency.”
“Their role is not, what I call, boxes and wires and green blinking lights,” he added.
Recognizing this transformation is important with 36 gubernatorial races playing out this year. This will inevitably mean turnover in the CIO ranks, as some CIOs choose to move on and as new governors build out their administrations and appoint new leadership.
Robinson said he talks to governors’ transition teams and that NASCIO coordinates with the National Governors Association to provide information to new governors. An emphasis for NASCIO, he said, is on dispelling the stereotype that CIOs are “a technology person” who needs “to know computers” and that tech is “a back-office function”
“Clearly, what we know is that’s not the case,” he said.
A survey of state CIOs that NASCIO and accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton released in October reflects the trends Robinson described.
Asked to name the three most important leadership traits or attributes critical for success in their roles, the top answer CIOs gave was “strategist,” followed by “communicator,” and “relationship manager.” Robinson noted that “technologist” ranked No. 9 out of 10 options.
Compared to a 2018 poll, “strategist” climbed from the No. 3 spot, while “communicator” fell from No. 1 and “relationship manager” slipped from No. 2. But the consistent answers between years show how the idea that these characteristics are critical has taken hold.
“It resonates with me,” Amanda Crawford, executive director of the Texas Department of Information Resources, said during a panel at NASCIO’s event, discussing this year’s survey findings. “I am not a technologist. Although, I’m learning to be one.”
Crawford noted that her background is in law and that she worked previously for the Texas Attorney General’s office, and said she carried over experience to her current job about communications, strategy, change management and how government works.
Tarek Tomes, Minnesota’s chief information officer, also highlighted aspects of CIOs’ jobs that don’t deal directly with technology.
“Success for a CIO has to be connected with the people that you are serving and the impact you are creating,” he said. “And it certainly has to be connected with the goals of the administration.”
Likewise, Tomes noted how CIOs need to be able to develop strategies that cut across many different parts of government. These might range from looking at new ways to provide free and reduced school lunch, or unemployment benefits, to mapping out a cloud computing project.
Tomes said he likes to think of one role for CIOs as “chief instigator” (a play off of the abbreviation for the official title). This, he said, involves identifying how tech can serve as a “digital connector,” or how it can improve services, and then stepping into these situations to work with others in state government to seize on the opportunities.
“Certainly, how we manage technology organizations, and the agility and the speed that we are able to deliver is critical. And we have to do the technology ingredients,” he said. But, Tomes added: “From a strategic level, we have to live in that service delivery.”
Bill Lucia is the executive editor for Route Fifty.
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