CXO

How the public sector CIO position differs from that in the private sector

Filling the CIO role involves different sets of challenges in the public and private sectors. Find out what you could expect to face working in that capacity within the U.S. government.


Unless you're a government CIO or work directly with one, you probably don't realize how much this position can differ from a CIO position in the private sector. A government CIO role can be very satisfying, but it definitely has its own challenges.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a spirited group discussion regarding the qualifications for a government CIO. The group, including two public sector CIOs and their senior managers, discussed the relative merits of potential candidates who would likely oust them in an upcoming administration change. All present agreed that someone without previous government experience might perform well, but would be entering an environment very different from the one he or she came from.

One of the CIOs who participated in the discussion was ousted shortly after the administration change. He is still actively applying for government/public sector positions because, in his view, the variety of services provided by the government makes for the most interesting technology challenges when compared to private sector roles.

While public and private versions of the CIO position are similar, CIOs who consider working in the government sector should understand the differences. Here are some of the highlights. Keep in mind that I'm discussing federal, state, and local government as a whole.

Your position
For a large number of government bodies, you'll find that the position isn't called chief information officer. Only the more technologically progressive governments use this term. More than likely, the title is director of technology, information services, or something similar.

In the position, you also probably wouldn't report directly to the chief executive. More likely, you'd report to a cabinet head, the CFO, or an administrator. You might even find that you wouldn't be a department head but a division head, lumped in with other administrative services.

Your leader
Your boss is an elected official. This means that the CIO is part of an organization whose strategic plan can vary dramatically every two, four, or eight years, depending on the election cycle and the elected official’s luck at the polls. It also means that you could be out of a job at the next administration change—especially if you're a member of the “wrong” political party at the time. In addition, you'll find that while you “report” to the elected official, you must also serve other masters (or, at least, not anger them too much).

Your budget
Your source of funds come from taxes—primarily employment taxes. Therefore, when the economy is doing well, funds are more likely to be available. When the economy is down, funds become scarce, but the demand for your services remains the same or increases. Also, your budget is historically small. While there are exceptions, governments don’t typically expend large percentages of their budgets on technology.

Remember those other masters? Meet the legislative branch of the government. Whatever this group may be called—council, House of Representatives, Senate, board of commissioners—they get to approve and modify your budget. Get off on the wrong foot with them, and you'll pay for it at budget time.

Your flexibility
Do you need to quickly make a purchase? Just hop online and find the lowest prices for what you need, right? Wrong. Most governments have rules that make you purchase from existing contracts or bid the purchase out. And the bid process, while fair and equitable, is slow. Expect a two- to eight-week process before you can even order your equipment.

Did they hire you to clean up a mess? You're planning to weed out the bad employees and get some real talent in your shop. Think again. When working with a bureaucracy, removing an employee from public sector work can be an arduous and time-consuming task. Couple that with the fact that you'll find unionized IT departments, and suddenly you'll find that it’s not so easy to introduce change.

I don't want to paint a totally dismal picture. For every one of these challenges, there are rewarding aspects of public sector work that make it worthwhile. Otherwise, no one would do it.

Don’t believe for a minute that, because of these challenges, only those who are marginal or less qualified apply. Some of the brightest and most dedicated IT professionals I know make their living as public sector employees. They just had to master the art of technology in a public institution.

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