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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.
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It was a rare opportunity at Government Technology’s “Seize the Moment” webinar on June 22 to hear Martin O’Malley – twice a government CEO as mayor of Baltimore and governor of the Old Line State – explain the best ways that CIOs can get the attention of their bosses on tech issues.

The webinar’s instruction arrives at a critical point in government history – with unprecedented stimulus funds flowing from Washington, states and cities have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in the technology infrastructure that will power the American economy for decades to come.

With all that teed up, however, the big question now is whether state and local government IT investment receives the attention and funding it deserves, and how the CIO can inspire the CEO’s attention to make it happen.

Joining former Maryland Gov. O’Malley on the panel were former Dallas CIO Bill Finch, and Teri Takai – my friend and successor several times removed as California CIO – as moderator.

Smart Cities Thinking

Before O’Malley got into the secret sauce of a fruitful CEO/CIO relationship, Takai asked him about the future direction of IT spending. “The pandemic showed the important role that technology plays in mobility, connectivity and access to digital services. What do you recommend, Governor, to state and local government leaders as to where to focus their technology spending in the future?”

“Teri, all of those things you mentioned, are part and parcel of this new buzz term – the Smart City,” replied O’Malley. “But Smart City is not a noun, it’s a verb. So, all these actions to provide the services that give people greater access, greater mobility, greater access to – you name it – public benefits, parks, clean streets, and what have you, are important.”

O’Malley explained how his friend and former Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Steve Goldsmith, coined the phrase. “We should all think about government as a platform, and I would add, we should think of it as a customer service platform,” he said.

O’Malley continued, “So if there are things a CIO has had on their future product roadmap for as long as you can remember that would upgrade and improve the ability, the agility, the visibility you have into that customer service platform – and, oh by the way, the ability to deliver those better results for citizens – now is the time to accelerate that product roadmap.”

O’Malley explained how the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated just how valuable technology can be, allowing people to work remotely, and government to still deliver services, while giving supervisors the assurance that things are getting done. “CIOs should take this opportunity given the amount of money that the Federal government is now giving to cities and counties and states, and CIOs should use this opportunity to prove that a portion of these funds deserve to go to accelerating their product roadmap and upgrading that common platform,” he said.

Pitching the Boss

Then Takai got to the heart of the topic, asking O’Malley, “It would be interesting for those CIOs in the audience, how do they convince their governor or mayor that technology spending is important, and that it should be considered in the same light as other programs? What can CIOs do to make sure that they’re relevant in that discussion?”

O’Malley first provided some history. “CIOs now have an enterprise-wide responsibility. In fact, even the term, 15-20 years ago in Baltimore, we didn’t even have somebody called a chief information officer. I was elected governor in 2006 but it was only under my first term that we created the role of CIO.”

O’Malley explained that when you’re pitching to your executive, ignore the customary “no” from your finance director. Instead, he said, provide a solid, passionate argument along these lines: “Hey boss, I want to make a pitch to you for a one-time investment that will bring you a solid return on that investment in terms of efficiency, and improve the ability of your entire government to deliver better results for the people we serve.”

O’Malley explained that CIOs need to emphasize to their executives that one-time dollars will pay for themselves through the efficiencies gained, and these efficiencies will provide the executive and program managers with performance data on how they’re delivering to their sector of operations. This will result in a visible, demonstrable improvement in service delivery for citizens. “That’s a winner for any official that has to get themselves elected or re-elected in order to successfully manage their operation,” he said.

Former Dallas CIO Finch concurred when asked if those strategies were winners.

“Absolutely, Governor O’Malley is spot on with his comments about the role of the CIO,” Finch said. “And so certainly when I stepped into that role with the city of Dallas, it was clear to me that the citizen is first and foremost our customer.” He explained that his first steps as CIO in Dallas was to make it clear to the 40 department heads within the city that he was going to be a partner, a collaborator. “The word ‘no’ was not something that was going to be in our vocabulary.”

Takai asked Finch if O’Malley were your mayor, “How would you convince him that it was important to spend on technology? Any tips or techniques that you could share on how you get legislators and executive branch members to understand the importance of technology?”

Finch related how he went through this process with several mayors over the years and it was critical to be prepared. He recounted his first meeting in 2001 with Mayor Michael Rawlings who was a former private sector CEO at Pizza Hut. “I explained what we had done in the city to transform and modernize, but he stopped me real quick.” Turns out Rawlings did not want to hear about things already done, and responded, “I want to know what you’re doing now, where are you going, give me your vision.” Fortunately, Finch was prepared. “So quickly I said, ‘Let’s move to page seven of the PowerPoint.’”

Finch also stressed the importance of being an enterprise-wide CIO, and becoming that trusted partner with the business side of government.

The IT organization has to engage with the business, he said. “You can’t just sit in some office. My staff would tell me, from being in a police car at 2 AM in the morning, or riding in a sanitation truck, or doing a walkabout with a code compliance officer, and discovering how they use technology, what could we do to improve their job,” Finch said. That approach results in a partnership, bringing enabling technologies to business programs to improve the citizen experience.

Governance Models

Those are valuable and rare lessons from the chief executive and panel. However, while the forum unfortunately did not have an opportunity to consider the most effective CIO governance model that is so critical to CEO/CIO relationship and overall CIO success, I offer these points.

  • Building that relationship is stymied from the start if it is not facilitated by the enterprise CIO’s position in the state or local governments’ organizational structure, and invested through executive and legislative support with the proper authority to do the job.
  • Authority includes IT policy, operations, and enterprise-wide IT budget approval responsibilities.
  • In a state that means cabinet member status, or on the mayor’s executive staff. Without that seat at the leadership table, with other peer program executives, the CIO role begins with one hand tied behind his/her back.

Unfortunately, today only a dozen or so states have such a CIO governance model according to NASCIO executive director, Doug Robinson. One of them is Maryland, instituted by Governor O’Malley.

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