Last week, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers released its strategic plan for 2018-2020 — a deceptively simple document that will prove invaluable next year in many of the 36 states holding gubernatorial elections this November. States that elect new governors also will likely usher in new CIOs, some of them new to government and possibly in dire need of guidance.
The new strategic plan emphasizes the association’s guiding principles, such as a commitment to nonpartisanship; maintaining ethical relationships; fostering policies that support the public trust; and promoting the CIO as a technology leader “who drives business innovation and transformation.”
Those ideas might seem obvious to anyone already inside state government, but at the top of NASCIO’s list of goals and objectives is a goal to “support transition planning, processes and mentoring for state CIOs” — a reminder that several new CIOs could soon find themselves in an IT and leadership role unlike anything else in the working world.
In Oklahoma, where Republican Gov. Mary Fallin is term-limited from seeking reelection, CIO Bo Reese — who is also NASCIO’s current president — could also soon be among those looking for work.
Reese told StateScoop that even all his government experience didn’t fully prepare him for the statewide CIO role when he took it over in 2014. NASCIO, he said, helped to ease that transition.
“Before I came into this job, I knew what NASCIO was, I knew that my predecessors spoke very highly of NASCIO, but had no idea the value that NASCIO would bring to me in the state once I found myself in this role,” said Reese, who has now spent 27 years in state government, first starting in the computer science department of Oklahoma State University and then later working his way up through what was then called the Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board.
Overcoming what’s ‘overwhelming’
Not all CIOs rise up the ranks the way Reese did. On rare occasions, a state CIO role will be filled by recruiting from another state; Alex Pettit, who resigned from Oregon’s government on rocky terms with Gov. Kate Brown in April, was originally plucked by Gov. John Kitzhaber from his state CIO role in Oklahoma. Other times, a governor will select someone with an extensive background doing networking for the military, or a private-industry IT executive whose track record impressed the right people.
But being successful in the private sector or the military doesn’t guarantee success, and even those who know state government best often find their efforts to optimize IT operations thwarted by political inertia and decades of institutional baggage. Reese, who is credited with leading a state IT consolidation project that has saved Oklahoma $372 million annually, said the support of a network of peers has proven immensely useful in his daily work.
“This job can be so overwhelming at times,” Reese said. “There are so many different lines of business going on. We work on everything from public safety to health and human services, department of transportation, banking and finance. It comes at you from all angles and so it is a lot.”
Been there, done that
Reese recalled that when he began as state CIO, he met with other department heads to get his mind around the IT consolidation project he had been charged with leading. He soon discovered an onerous challenge. His state government’s stovepiped agencies had established relationships with federal regulators and none of them wanted to hand over too much control to a central IT agency because they were worried about losing federal funding or losing control of regulatory compliance for which they could still be penalized if mismanaged.
When confronted with this challenge as a CIO, “you can feel quite powerless,” Reese said. But he was soon encouraged, through NASCIO, by a network of CIOs who had already been through these types of challenges. He heard stories, advice, and consolation from others who had already been there.
State IT is complex, and every state is different. NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson “likes to say that once you’ve seen one state, you’ve seen one state,” Reese said. But one thing that’s universally true is that optimizing and modernizing processes, services and aging architecture is too big a challenge for anyone to go it alone. It’s through a broad coalition that the most effective and long-lasting work gets done.
In establishing indispensable relationships with vendors, too, NASCIO is instrumental to state government, Reese said — a reality that many new CIOs will soon discover if they’re not already aware.
“NASCIO recognizes that relationship, fosters that relationship, and makes sure that it is a healthy productive relationship,” Reese said of vendors. “I think we will have a lot of states embracing NASCIO as we move forward because it really is the cornerstone of our community and it’s more important than ever.”
NASCIO is now preparing for its 2018 Annual Conference , to be held Oct. 21-24 in San Diego.