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How to become a master CIO in the public sector

How to become a master CIO in the public sector

5 ways to help your agency become a world-class digital service provider

Government CIOs face a litany of unique challenges — transient and inconsistent leadership, financial austerity, shifting citizen expectations, chronic IT underinvestment, scarce digital leadership, to name a few. The proliferation of "adjacent" roles (chief digital/technology/data/innovation/transformation officers) has diluted CIO authority and responsibilities. The role is too often viewed as a support function and submerged within the org chart.

At the same time, the opportunity has never been greater for government CIOs to step up efforts to deliver better citizen services and help their organisations make the often hazardous journey through digitalisation to become a world-class digital government. The time is now, so let’s look at how.

Government CIOs need to become ‘master CIOs’ to overcome the compound effect of lingering challenges of the past, combined with impending future challenges. You’ll need to adopt traits that may initially appear foreign, or at least uncomfortable. To become a master CIO, you’ll need to consciously transform yourself to meet the challenges in front of you. The greatest being the awkward — and sometimes messy — collision of yesterday and tomorrow.

So, what is a master CIO in government? First, they act as business leaders more than IT leaders and have an industry vision. Their "values first" mentality enables them to recognise the wider benefits that accrue through the "purpose economy." They also look for additional capabilities everywhere outside of IT. The high emotional intelligence of master CIOs enables them to apply coaching or visionary leadership styles more than "command and control."

Take bold steps: move from service provider and cost centre to digital leader and trusted ally; from on-premises to the cloud; from reactive to strategic; from asset manager to service broker. All will have pervasive, disruptive transformative effects, not just on your IT organisation, but also on your government. Be prepared to navigate all of these transitions to be successful.

Here are five ways you can get on the right path.

1. Change tone, content and dialogue

Changing the attitude toward technology begins with achieving transparency and dispelling the misconceptions, biases and emotional discussions around IT. This is done with hard numbers and facts focused on business and mission benefits and impacts, rather than on technology.

With some governments devoting disproportionate amounts to IT, cost optimisation — not simply cost reduction — will be a necessary discipline. Approach it as a team sport and gradually (but decisively) shift the focus of dialogue away from technology.

2. Form and empower a coalition of allies

As a CIO you can't do everything, despite governments' efforts to delegate disproportionate responsibilities to you. At a minimum, build strong relationships with your key enablers in finance, administration and human resources, as well as mission partners – business unit or program directors.

Recruiting them as allies can help smooth the road and reduce friction. It can reinforce the importance of what you're trying to accomplish with senior leadership. As with any alliance, be conscious of their motivations and don't expect more than they're willing to invest.

3. Assume a digital leadership role

The proliferation of other digital roles in government is ostensibly a temporary, and ultimately unsustainable, distribution (and dilution) of responsibilities. Ultimately, assess your ambition and the extent to which you see yourself as the best one to take on consolidation of digital responsibilities.

Then, negotiate with your digital counterparts to find a path to a consolidated organisation — preferably under a new and reinvented CIO.

4. Prioritise personal development

Leading a neglected IT organisation that’s laden with legacy technology and a seasoned workforce with outdated skills requires a different leadership style than a technology-forward, heavily outsourced IT organisation. Each will require leadership that earns their trust, illuminates a path and moves at a pace that is brisk, but not exhausting.

Guide your workforce through the impending transitions, while mitigating resistance derived from fear, uncertainty and doubt. Not all elements of a workforce will respond equally well to the same leadership style, so tweak yours to what works best situationally.

5. Foster greater executive engagement

Your 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, you can’t succeed unless the leadership wants and helps you to. There has to be greater senior executive engagement in decision making and governance from the perspectives of prioritisation, conflict resolution, business process redesign, informed risk management, change management and accountability.

Rick Holgate is a research director at Gartner, supporting government on digital government, cloud, blockchain, mobility, digital workplace, information security, IT procurement, shared services, case management and legacy system modernisation.

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