CIOs have to transcend IT role
CIOs have to transcend IT role
Chief information officers are facing a battle to establish themselves as leaders in local government
Chief information officers need a range of skills and a firm understanding of their organisation's business, but many still think of themselves as technologists, a shortcoming that is hindering efforts to increase the influence of the role in local government.
This was one of the conclusions to emerge from a round table discussion, organised by public sector IT professionals' organisation Socitm, at the recent Public Sector IT Leadership Forum. Focusing on the leadership role of the CIO in the reform of public services, particularly in relation to service managers, it prompted some lively discussion that extended to the barriers to reform, the role of elected members, and whether it is reasonable to expect service managers to know enough about IT to be effective clients.
It was observed that chief executives are beginning to appreciate the value of IT, but the fact that it has taken so long is in part an indictment of the IT management profession. This is partly down to some CIOs continuing to think of themselves as technologists, while in fact they need three solid sets of skills: in the provisioning of IT services; organisational change; and information governance.
On the other hand, there is a narrow mindset among colleagues when it comes to technology. One attendee cited the example of the potential for London to save £2m a year in fuel by managing 600-700 refuse vehicles more efficiently. It would rely heavily on the effective flow of information, but in some quarters it prompted the question of whether it is a matter in which IT managers should get involved.
There was a suggestion that the problem is the 'ICT' label: the important part is information, not communications or technology. This was taken further by the comment that the need is not for technology leadership but leadership in general, and a genuine dialogue with service heads.
Although this prompted a question as to whether all CIOs are capable of engaging in such dialogues, an example of good practice emerged. One CIO taking part said he encouraged his staff to see beyond internal targets, which rarely mention the customer, by requiring them to spend a day with their clients in public-facing roles.
Another problem derives from the fact that local authorities regard themselves as atomic units. There was an observation that, although a lot of citizens have dealings with more than one authority, there is no sense that councils see a need for horizontal collaboration. Citizens are looking for integration, and unless public bodies get together and do things differently, they will always be seen as providers of second rate services.
It was suggested that this problem is caused by the vertical provision of funding. "We are not funded to do things jointly and don't get credited for doing things jointly," was one of the comments.
There was a sharp divide over the question of whether elected members' technical literacy presents obstacles. One attendee reported that one councillor still refuses to have a PC at home, and that there is still a fear about the consequences of errors.
But another said he had yet to meet a politician who is not interested in ways to help them do a better job, especially talking to voters. One commented that councillors set the political programme and are good drivers for change.
There was a strong feeling that new technology, including open systems and open data, can support the cause of change - if councils could escape their current contractual commitments and break away from holding data in silos run by corporate IT contractors. The future would be the "flat organisation", in which more people are empowered by technology and hierarchies are less rigid.
One attendee welcomed this vision but commented that the reality is one of "supplier lock-down" to a complex IT infrastructure, which frequently requires the use of more complex software than a consumer might use. It was observed that private business has the same problem.
Wider changes may help to overcome the problems. One participant said that "everyone can use IT now", and that the only barriers are internal management structures and existing contracts. Another said his organisation was embracing this change through a 20 year view, partnering with local technology start-ups to co-build federated platforms. This has a strong appeal as nurturing local business is politically far more palatable than partnerships with multinational companies.
"Build a platform to allow innovation, to create real economic value locally," one attendee urged. This can be complemented by changes in the workforce, with teams communicating using channels such as LinkedIn. In addition, open data will be a big driver to improvement, enabling people from outside organisations to make their own contributions to improving services.
Of course, the skills for leadership seldom come naturally, and CIOs need appropriate training opportunities as part of their career paths. It became apparent that the outlook for this varies. One attendee said that a training programme had been cut on the grounds of economy, and the fact that the organisation did not know what it would look like in four years' time. Another said that an important programme had been expanded as a response to the new financial climate.
It was almost inevitable that, with the current preoccupation with coping with the spending cuts, that participants were often more conscious of the problems than promises. One participant commented on the negative language of debate, and urged CIOs to take a positive stance, emphasising that the current challenges provide an opportunity rather than a threat: "The tools are available, the only restrictions are in our mindset."