As it was with the immortal swordsmen in 1980s film Highlander so it is with the CIO and the new role of chief digital officer (CDO) – there can be only one.

By 2017 almost two-thirds of government organisations that have both a CIO and CDO role will have axed one in favour of the other, according to analyst house Gartner.

The chief digital officer is a relatively recent creation, focused on finding ways to exploit either data held within the organisation or data about the organisation held by a third party. 

An example could be building an API to allow developers to use internal information to create products and services and adding value to that data. 

Because the role is generally focused on people outside the organisation, it is more common in consumer- facing organisations, such as government bodies.

Gartner predicts that by 2014, more than 20 percent of government bodies will have appointed a chief digital officer – spurred on by digital government strategies such as those being implemented in the UK and US to provide better services at lower cost.

“In government, as well as other industries, roles like chief data officer or chief digital officer are emerging in response to the increasing importance of enterprise digital assets,” Gartner managing vice president Andrea Di Maio said.

The chief data officer role is focused on ensuring that heavily-regulated industries handle data in a way that complies with the rules.

Before these CDO and CIO roles swallow each other, existing CIOs and CTOs should form a close working relationship with both flavours of CDO, Gartner said, particularly if they don’t want their roles to collide in the near future.

“Government CIOs must establish good working relationships with chief data officers, chief digital officers or equivalent roles introduced to support the digital strategy, and identify areas where they can add value to a different role’s responsibility,” Di Maio said.

“They should also push for a clear demarcation between their role and the roles of others with regard to information by defining clear principles about ownership, purpose and use.”

Over the next three to five years, Gartner said the friction between chief digital officer and CIO will become more evident. 

While internal technology operations, as well as some aspects of technology innovation, will be left to the CTO, the battleground for CIOs and chief digital officers will be how to handle digital information.

By this point most government organisations will have understood how to balance the value of internal information with information residing in social networks and other non-controlled data sources.

“The chief digital officer and the CIO will become information custodians, providers and, most of all, advisors,” Gartner research director Rick Howard said.

“In such a situation, there is little reason for keeping two separate roles. Most likely, the chief digital officer role will be absorbed by, or become indistinguishable from, the CIO role,” he said. 

“In a minority of organisations, the reverse might be true, mostly due to the negative connotation of the CIO as a role of the past. It is quite possible that the new integrated title will be chief digital information officer.”