by Maryfran Johnson

Public-Sector CIOs Feel a ‘Higher Calling’

May 18, 2010
Government IT

Those who run IT in state and local governments help save lives

As far as hot topics go, the notion of customer centricity is a real sizzler with CIOs these days. Whatever the industry, the focus on the end consumers of your goods and services seems to be sharper than ever before. We see it in our CIO research results, with big year-over-year jumps in the customer-focus questions. We hear about it at our events, where CIOs trade stories about customer initiatives that elevate IT’s reputation or accelerate business results.

Yet rarely do we hear the kind of hair-raising stories CIOs in the public sector have to share, such as those Kim Nash gathered for our cover story on the dire struggles of state and local governments (“Reweaving the Safety Net”). Government spending on human services programs—benefits such as food stamps, housing, unemployment coverage and medical care—accounts for 27 percent ($412 billion) of state budgets nationwide.

“In human services, customer centricity is not, as it is in the private sector, about convenient cross-selling,” Nash writes. “It’s about cross-serving, so that people may live better. Or simply stay alive.”

This is a very sobering story to read, with few happy endings in sight. Private-sector CIOs will empathize with the classic IT leadership obstacles that their public sector brethren encounter—everything from inadequate project funding and incompatible systems to political infighting and overblown expectations.

Yet the consequences of failure can be so much harder to bear in the public sector. “If you don’t provide optimum customer service in the private sector, you lose revenue and margins go down,” says Atefeh Riazi, CIO of the New York City Housing Authority. “In government, it’s a higher calling.”

I’ve seen that higher calling firsthand when interviewing CIOs who’ve made the leap from private- to public-sector jobs. Despite lower pay and intractable problems, they thrive on making a real difference in peoples’ lives. I spoke recently with one state CIO who talked about the “amazing scale and complexity and criticality” of the systems she oversees. “We hear story after story about how important some of these systems are,” this CIO said. “We’re literally saving lives.”

When lives are actually lost to bureaucracy’s worst IT failures—as one horrific example in our story makes clear—it can drive systemic reform, notes Clarence Carter, director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Human Services. “In the outrage, there comes support for change.”

Maryfran Johnson, Editor in Chief, CIO Magazine aanndd Events