State CIOs Earn a Seat at the Table

Eye on the States Thomas R. Davies

State CIOs Earn a Seat at the Table

State IT leaders have struggled for the attention of the highest-level elected officials. Governors especially seem to have other issues that take precedence over information technology. Needy children, rising crime rates, natural disasters and other public-policy concerns usually win out at the end of the day.

Consequently, one of the greatest challenges facing state IT leaders is how to mobilize enterprisewide support for critical IT issues at the highest levels of state government.

Virginia Gov. James Gilmore's recent actions are a clear sign that forward-thinking state leaders are willing to take steps to change this situation. In one of his first acts, the governor used his executive authority to create a cabinet-level position of secretary of technology.

He appointed Don Upson, a well-known senior executive with both private- and public-sector experience, as chief information officer and head of the new agency. For the first time, Virginia will have a single point of accountability and responsibility for IT at the cabinet level.

These actions in Virginia are a continuation of the trend to establish state CIO positions. Over the past two years, dozens of states have reorganized the management of their IT functions and have created similar positions. More than half of the states have a CIO-type leader.

But, as many CIOs are discovering, getting the job is like getting invited to a party. Once appointed, it is largely up to them to figure out how to keep IT on the governor's agenda.

What may be most unique about Gilmore's actions is the recognition that IT is not just a tool to make state government work more efficiently. In his executive order, the governor clearly recognized that the health of the IT industry in the state is key to achieving other public-policy goals in education, economic development and protecting Virginia's position in a global economy.

With this recognition, he directed the secretary of technology not only to promote the efficient use of technology in state government but also to ensure a "technology friendly" business climate across the commonwealth.

Wearing both hats - that of Virginia's CIO and its ambassador to the technology community - is without precedent in state government. It not only elevates the CIO's stature within state government but also legitimately gives the new secretary a seat at the table when key public-policy decisions are made at the cabinet level.

Is this a precursor for other states? While much will depend on the success of Virginia's model, there are signs that Gilmore has jumped out in front of what could be a parade when many new governors take office next year.

After long deliberations, Kentucky recently established a cabinet-level CIO position and brought in Aldona Valicenti, a proven executive from the private sector, to head the office.

North Carolina also recently created a CIO position and assistant secretary for technology, locating this organization in the state's department of commerce. CIO Richard Webb has been moving quickly to establish a strong leadership role in the state for his new office.

The diversity in backgrounds and experiences of these new state technology officers shows there is no such thing as a typical state CIO. Like the states they serve, the CIOs reflect very different styles, responsibilities, relationships with their governors, priorities and personal knowledge of IT and the public sector.

What they all share is a commitment to make a difference. No longer content to simply maintain the status quo, they see themselves as agents of change. They sense that state government is coming of age. They also are very aware of the increasing expectations, both inside and outside state government, that result from having such visibility and responsibility.

Over the course of the past few years, the states have moved to the forefront of the public sector. Consequently, the new generation of national leaders likely will include many governors who are in place today. The same probably will hold true for the CIOs. Those who are fortunate to hold such positions and are able to truly make a difference in their states are likely to become the national IT leaders of the future in the public sector.

Thomas Davies is senior vice president of Federal Sources State and Local Government practice in McLean, Va. David DeBrandt provided research support.

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