Forty-something intrepid state CIOs descended upon Seattle last week for the first in-person National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) conference in two years.

First, a nod to the state officials – and 500 or so of the state IT vendor community and other interested parties – for executing the trek despite the continuing pandemic, and amid many air travel horror stories in the face of the sudden and surprising Southwest Airlines cancellation of over 2,000 flights during the weekend before the meeting.

Despite the difficulties, NASCIO plowed ahead with an agenda including leadership-themed keynotes, and focused sessions on AI, cloud, cyber, IAM, digital services, workforce trends, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Finally, there was the always popular annual review of NASCIO’s State CIO Survey which is the focus of this article today.

Survey Says…

The NASCIO 2001 survey developed through the support of GrantThorton and CompTIA was subtitled “Delivering Digital Services,” although the underlying theme was more predictable and illustrated in the reports opening sentence, “2021 was a year that continued to be dominated by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The annual NASCIO survey goes back 12 years, and this year’s edition had nearly unanimous participation by 48 states and one territory CIO. And while the pandemic response was clearly predominant, many of the traditional topics covered by the survey – including digital transformation, cloud adoption, emerging technologies, and legacy modernization – were also key features.

Several survey findings did stand out – perhaps none more interesting than “whether the accelerated pace of state technology and digital services transformation over the past 18 months will persist beyond the pandemic.” Interwoven within this question is the ever-evolving role of the CIO which always underlies each survey, and clearly the CIOs role has never been more front and center than during the coronavirus pandemic.

That is perhaps best exemplified in the survey’s quote from one CIO, who didn’t think the CIO role has changed as much as others’ perception of it has. “The role has not necessarily changed but we have seen that people now understand that they are much more reliant on technology than they thought they were in the past,” the respondent said.

Praise for Pandemic Performance

In the crucible of the pandemic, state CIOs were not “tried and found wanting,” but were in fact for the most part enjoying their finest hour. Quickly adapting to the realities of an unprecedented surge in their states’ remote workforce and all of the enabling technologies that must accompany this new environment, CIOs efforts along with impressive IT vendor partnerships worked to accelerate procurement processes and meet new citizen engagement demands.

Throwing up new applications for COVID testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations – just to name a few – in a matter of weeks rather than the traditional months or even years has set a new standard, and high expectations for future performance.

Cabinet-Level Roles Still Lagging

In the midst of this euphoria of new CIO esteem within state government leadership among governors and senior executive program leadership, the survey did reveal perhaps a few incipient cracks in that new armor.

When the state CIOs were asked about their current “role in the state’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, “only 29 percent said they serve on the governor’s pandemic leadership team.” Unfortunately, that marked a decrease from the “38 percent response when the survey asked the same question in 2020.”

Such a finding would indicate that as the pandemic has receded somewhat with the impact of vaccinations, CIOs have returned to more traditional, i.e., non-executive leadership roles. In fact, even in non-pandemic times, only one in four state CIOs are in leadership positions as members of their governor’s cabinets, according to NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson.

With so much of a state CIO’s overall success being tied to that close relationship with their governor who acts as their senior executive sponsor, the initial enhancement of CIOs’ standing as a result of the pandemic response was extremely encouraging. And it was hoped in many quarters among those familiar with state CIO governance models and that ever critical governor-CIO relationship that such excellent performance might foster additional CIO elevation to leadership, or even cabinet status. That hoped-for elevated status, however, appears to remain elusive.

As articulated by Robinson while moderating a review of the survey during the conference, “State CIOs either have a seat at the table, or they are on the menu.” Such pithy sentiments explain a lot.

There’s much more to glean from the survey results and not just for the state IT policy wonk. The IT vendor community can learn much about what keeps CIOs up at night in the survey’s concise but informative 30 pages. Enjoy.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.