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By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

Are Government IT Departments and CIOs Irrelevant?

March 10, 2013 By

The Government CIO as viewed by the Business

"The Department of No". "The Geeks in the Basement". "Expensive Projects, Always Late".

Increasingly, many IT departments – and their CIOs – are becoming irrelevant to the business of government.

Peter Hinssen is a visiting lecturer at London Business School and a senior industry fellow at the University of California Irvine's School of Business. He recently wrote a provocative article on this subject, focused on CIOs and IT departments in the commercial sector.

But, as I thought about it, many of the same criticisms apply to government CIOs and my own experience as a City CIO.

Perhaps we can really trace IT department irrelevance back to smart phones. I remember when I was approached by Seattle’s Police Chief and Human Services Department director in about 2004 regarding BlackBerrys. As those City business leaders attended conferences, they saw their counterparts doing email on their cell phones. "Bill, why can’t we do the same?"

Luckily I was smart enough to investigate RIM and lucky enough that RIM (now branded BlackBerry) had a robust enterprise solution which catered to my IT department. We quickly put up a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and at last count more than 1000 BlackBerrys powered by Sprint and Verizon were in use by City of Seattle employees.

I wasn’t unique, of course – most CIOs and IT departments embraced BlackBerrys.

The problem of course, is that danged fruit company, Apple. They launched the iPhone about six years ago and the iPad a couple years later. Apple didn’t give a dang about Enterprises. It's "their way or the BlackBerry way". No management software for IT departments. Most IT departments resisted the iPhone and iPad trend citing security, public records act, and lack of manageability. But City and County employees quickly embraced them.

Suddenly, the IT department was irrelevant. I've blogged about this before, especially when Seattle elected a new Mayor, Mike McGinn, in 2009, and he and his staff brought iPhones to work and said "hook us up". But we see this trend in many other things.

You want a constituent relationship management system? Salesforce can be up in a day for a few thousand bucks (depending on number of users. Installing a CRM in the traditional manner, especially with RFP and customization, takes 18 months and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You want to share files? You can install and customize sharepoint, which works pretty well, or go with any one of a number of document management systems. Again, 6 to 18 months, hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. But Dropbox or Box.com can be up and working in minutes.

You need to spin up a few dozen servers and a couple terrabytes of storage quickly to support an election application or another urgent need? You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and months buying and installing equipment, then configuring and patching it, or you can go contract platform-as-a-service from Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web services or others.

You need office software like word processing, spreadsheet and an email client? You can spend five million dollars and three years justifying budget, planning, installing and training users (like we did at the City of Seattle), or you can go contract for Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud or Google Apps and have it up in weeks.   (In fairness to the City, we did our email/Office project before cloud services for Office products were widely available.)

I talked to a CIO last week who thankfully stopped the deployment of over 10,000 desk telephones in her organization. Desk telephones a tiny little window for displaying information and without video conferencing, presence or most other features found on even low-end cell phones these days.

Traditional IT folks will point to a variety of problems with my examples, of course – the cloud-based systems have security issues and they are not robust (supporting thousands of users). And they are not configurable to the unique requirements of a city, county or state government – although I’m convinced most of the "unique requirements" are actually just job security for those employees rather than true "requirements". That’s the subject for a future blog post.

Ok, I’ve made my point about infrastructure. It's a commodity. It’s easily purchased on the outside. This is one problem. Here’s the greater one: while CIOs and IT departments spend their time on software and services like those above, there are a ton of unmet needs. And, frankly, line-of-business departments are now tech saavy enough (thanks again to smartphones, tablet computers, and downloadable apps or software as a service), that they can go contract to meet these needs directly, by-passing the IT department. Here are a few examples:

  • Mapping. Yes, a city or county or state can install very robust configured software to produce beautiful maps using GIS analysts. But, frankly, most (not all) of a department’s needs can be met with Google Maps or Bing Maps or even Mapquest. (I could make a snide comment here about Apple maps, but I won’t). There are even specialized commercial mapping systems for some functions like crime mapping.
  • Big Data and Business Analytics. Government business departments are hungering for this software for uses as wide as traffic management to predictive policing to analysis of water complaints and electricity usage to simple dashboards of what happened overnight in the City (sometimes called "common operating picture"). This software is of huge use in managing a government. Is the CIO and IT department providing it?
  • Mobile devices and apps. When I was CIO in Seattle, the Transportation Director said he had been chastised by his business advisory board (trucking companies, retailers and others who depend upon freight mobility) because all his crews used paper for inspections and scheduling and construction work. Why didn’t I, as the CIO, capitalize on that comment and immediately get tablet computers and mobile clients for his traffic and asset management systems into the hands of those field workers? (For one thing the software companies who made those systems didn’t have mobile apps, but that’s a lame excuse.)

Is there a way out of this hell and dead-end of irrelevance for the Government CIO? I think there may be, with the trend we’re seeing for Chief Innovation Officers and Chief Digital Officers. I’ll blog about that in the near future.

In the meantime, I’m going back to configuring my server!


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