A Master Public Sector CIO

Evolution of Government IT Dictates Change

Transient leadership, penny-pinching financial policies, and growing citizen expectations are unique challenges in the public sector. On the other hand, digital technology is changing from an efficiency tool to enabler of new ways to deliver services. Government IT is going mainstream. As such, IT leaders need to consciously transform to meet the challenges.

Key Traits of a Master CIO

  1. Focus on leading from a business perspective. Be an enterprise-wide business leader outside of IT. Behavior and attitude is more important than job description. Spend more time making business decisions than managing IT.
  2. Have an industry vision. CIOs need a personal vision of where government service delivery is headed. Communicate a clear message internally (employees) and externally (citizens.)
  3. Business (Not IT) metrics. Use relevant business metrics to build credibility.
  4. Focus on Emotional Intelligence and “people skills.” Prioritize EI for personal and team development.
  5. Promote an Agile Culture. Design culture as part of your strategy to promote innovation in the entire organization. 

Facing Challenges to Public Sector CIOs

Faced with changes toward digital government, CIOs need to take on additional roles and responsibilities.

  • Anticipate and adapt to change. See opportunities and find ways to make them part of the changing agenda rather than being pushed around by them.
  • Make changes that stick. You won’t be there as long as your staff, on average. You’ll need to deal with an entrenched, change-averse culture and have the ability to impart lasting changes. This requires effective leadership, communication, change management, salesmanship and succession planning.
  • Think creatively. Governments are risk-averse and compliance-driven. Turning creative thinking into execution means being an effective change agent—for staff, peers and leadership. Vision and strong communication skills can overcome the typical barriers to progress in the public sector.
  • Elevate the perception of IT. Many government leaders treat IT as a cost center to be reduced. Government CIOs need to change that view. Reshaping the workforce, improving transparency, delivering projects and programs successfully, and ultimately achieving credibility to gain more influence over the enterprise technology portfolio.
  • Achieve strategic decision making. Build IT decision making into the governance framework of the organization.
  • Adopt a strategic position and attitude.  Rather than “service provider, order-taker,” you need to think strategically about technology and be responsible for shaping an integrated, coherent and comprehensive strategy for the organization.
  • Function effectively in three operational environments. Internal, externally facing and ecosystem. You need to deliver more externally facing citizen and business services. There is a  growing ecosystem made up of other government and private-sector partners and contributors, and success requires awareness of this environment.

The Path to Mastery

From service provider & cost center to digital leader and trusted ally.

Leading a neglected IT organization with legacy technology and a seasoned workforce with outdated skills requires a different leadership style than a technology-forward, heavily outsourced IT organization. Each will require leadership that earns trust. Take time to learn and understand — and address — the sources of discomfort. Guide your workforce through the impending transitions while mitigating resistance derived from fear, uncertainty and doubt. Recognize that not all elements of a workforce will respond equally well to the same leadership style, so tailor yours to adopt what works best situationally. Understand the importance of organizational change management skills, instilling these skill sets in your team as well. Be conscious of how you are perceived and received, and how this affects the workforce: Do you have buy-in or inspire resistance? What effect will that have on your ability to impart enduring changes to the organization? Adjust your language and tone accordingly. Leadership can also be upward — helping the government executives understand and take ownership of the digital opportunities. Particularly in environments that lack the inclination toward digital opportunities, finding, educating and cultivating senior sponsorship — and convincing them that it was their idea — is a valuable skill. Invest time in understanding the motivations and concerns of leadership, and speak to those drivers, aligning proposed IT initiatives with desired programmatic and political outcomes.

You Need Help

CIOs can’t do everything, despite governments’ efforts to delegate them disproportionate responsibilities. At a minimum, government CIOs must build strong relationships with their key enablers (CFO, CAO and COO or government equivalents) and mission partners (business unit or program directors). These enablers are critical in helping CIOs accomplish the basics (financing, acquisition and workforce), pursue creative options and achieve their larger objectives. Recruiting them as allies can help smooth the road and reduce friction, and it can help reinforce the importance of what you’re trying to accomplish with senior leadership. Similarly, agency, department or program leaders are also useful allies given that they typically spend more time with senior leadership and have more access to their ear. As with any alliance, be conscious of their motivations and don’t expect more from them than they’re willing to invest. Take the time to map out stakeholders and assess their levels of support, resistance and influence in the ultimate success of an initiative. Focus on outcomes rather than technology. Find and concentrate on areas of common professional interest and personal passion — and use them for maximum gain.

Change the Message About Technology

Changing the attitude toward technology begins with achieving transparency and dispelling the “mythology”— misconceptions, biases and emotional discussions — around IT with hard numbers and facts that are focused on business and mission benefits and impacts and not on technology itself. Reframe the internal IT department language to be external/business-focused, rather than IT focused, and more understandable. Pursue cross-organizational cost optimization using a team approach. Start with IT, expand it to other departments or organizations and shadow IT, and ultimately extend it to enterprise cost optimization that is focused on IT-enabled efficiencies and enhancements. Gradually (but decisively) shift the focus from technology to the broader business opportunities. Enlist your allies to amplify your messages and to help expand your influence to include the entire technology budget and portfolio. Once the cost-centric dialogue has been dispelled or dissolved, the conversation should more readily shift to the strategic digital opportunities. Subjects should include:

  • Reimagining citizen services
  • Reinventing mission execution
  • Improving employee productivity and experience
  • Achieving cross-organizational integration and service delivery

Master CIOs are conversant in business and mission terminology, metrics, and strategic imperatives, and that can enable this shift in focus.

Build Confidence, and be A Digital Leader

Ultimately, CIOs should assess their ambition and the extent to which they see themselves as the best one to take on consolidation of “digital” responsibilities. CIOs must evaluate their career opportunities and find their own preferred position in the organization. If the government CIO had been too focused on delivering IT infrastructure services due to budget and staff reductions, then the opportunity to consolidate these positions under a CIO should provide the organization with more continuity. It should also provide the ability to be both agile and stabile (bimodal). Master CIOs will evaluate that landscape and determine a plan of action to earn themselves an open invitation.

Foster Engagement

CIOs’ success is ultimately dependent on executive engagement and sponsorship. Transformational CIOs aren’t overwhelmed or dissuaded by acculturated risk avoidance and leadership with zero risk tolerance. At the end of the day, CIOs cannot succeed unless the leadership wants and helps them to succeed. There has to be greater senior executive engagement in decision making and governance from the perspectives of:

  • Prioritization
  • Conflict resolution
  • Business process redesign
  • Informed risk management
  • Change management
  • Accountability

Government CIOs who otherwise personally exhibit the traits of a master CIO cannot also accept passive leadership and “magically” achieve success. Master CIOs in government must ensure decisions are elevated to the appropriate levels, with full understanding of associated risks and trade-offs. Highly functioning governance is essential to CIO success and largely absent from governments. The mission of CIOs must be to educate and involve executive leadership, find sufficient time to help them understand the decisions they need to be involved in, and persuade them to take ownership of the decisions they make.


Government Digital Transformation articles by  Deloitte,  McKinsey and  Accenture.