What makes a public sector CIO successful?

The transformation of the public sector in the face of budget constraints, new technologies and legislative requirements, and its impact on IT, has put the public sector CIO in the spotlight.

We thought it would take a certain type of person or particular set of skills to operate successfully under this type of scrutiny. But after interviewing more than 30 public sector CIOs from around the world, we found there are no silver bullets. For these executives, success rests on a combination of persistence, leadership, management and competency.

To the novice, the public sector might seem “political”, with decisions based on policy and other factors. In fact, decisions are based on public service, not profit. These decisions place greater emphasis on the credibility of public sector executives, making credibility the currency of senior executives, and something that CIOs must actively manage as an executive asset.

Gaining executive attention

Credibility requires the influence that flows from executive attention. Gaining this attention requires having the proper relationships, anticipating business needs, and understanding the political and policy context.

CIOs frequently point to a relationship with a senior executive champion as one of their success factors. That executive, often in the first or second tier of management, understands technology and appreciates its role in business operations and service delivery.

Of course, an easier way to get attention is to allow an operational failure. The trouble is, the resulting attention will be the type you’d prefer to avoid.

If credibility is the currency of working with public sector executives, information is the currency that keeps the system working. Few recognize the “logic of resistance” that occurs when an issue comes before an executive who has not been briefed. In such a case, the executive’s first reaction is to view the issue as unimportant: “After all, if it were important, I would know about it.” Executives will not place their credibility at risk by supporting something they do not know about. It leaves them with one course of action: resistance.

Effective briefings can combat the logic of resistance by speaking in language that the business understands and can internalize rapidly. CIOs do this by raising their political intelligence. Many CIOs invest in reading and researching technology, but they should spend the same amount of time researching the political and policy debates affecting their agency.

Aligning with the executive agenda

But senior executive attention is not a one-way street. It’s mutual, so gaining senior executive involvement requires the CIO to focus on the items that matter in the executive’s agenda.

Aligning IS priorities with the executive agenda involves supporting the senior political executive’s to do list. Maintaining a separate “shadow” IS agenda is counterproductive.

The budget process creates a “zero sum game” when funding for one group causes a drop in funding for others. Playing this game is dangerous because IS dollars for future projects compete against current constituents’ needs. The constituents will win more often than not. CIOs who align their requests to the agenda avoid placing the purchase of new workstations against the cost of providing social or humanitarian services.

Alignment is more than pledging support for the executive agenda and department mission. It involves delivering the agenda’s results and leading IS in a complex environment. Delivering results, rather than project outcomes, creates trust and shows CIO stewardship of public resources.

Results are about a tangible return on the public’s investment, not simply completed projects. CIOs must work with their business colleagues to produce agreed and predictable value.

Effective CIOs are people who can combine visionary leadership with achieving results on the ground. They can articulate how the business transacts through technology. They can engage the trust of the CEO, and they understand the synergies across government. This is a tall order, in anyone’s language. But a little credibility goes a long way towards achieving it.

Andrew Rowsell-Jones is vice president and research director for Gartner’s CIO Executive Programs.

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