WANTED: CITY MANAGERS WITH TECH CHOPS. In a growing number of municipalities, CIOs find that their experience as IT leaders propels them to positions of enhanced management responsibility and provides them with a tool for effective municipal government.
When Eric Anderson, the city manager of Des Moines, Iowa, received an award for technology leadership during a conference in 2000, he knew he could not have won it without the help of Michael Armstrong, then his director of information technology. Impressed with Armstrong’s work ethic, Anderson promoted him to CIO in 2003 and added assistant city manager to his job title last year.
Armstrong is among a growing number of public servants taking the technology path to a choice spot on the city manager’s staff. Technologists are now increasingly filling a job that traditionally went to long-time employees in public safety and finance.
IT officials in this role agree that working in the city manager’s office makes them strong technology advocates. In turn, department and city managers can be confident that qualified individuals are making important technology decisions, and that’s a winning situation for everyone.
Although the dual role adds a new layer of complexity to the position, IT’s involvement in every aspect of government provides a unique insight into the job—and a leg up to a more multifaceted career.
“We’ve gotten good at business process change, we tend not to have a turf and we’ve accepted the role of helping to manage the entire organization,” says Armstrong about fellow CIOs who have moved into city management. “We get much more engaged with the entire enterprise rather than with a single department.”
In fact, a CIO is usually one of only three or four employees in city management who get to see the entire organization at a detailed level, Armstrong points out. A CFO or finance director focuses on funding, a CEO or city manager takes a strategic perspective, and a department head such as a police or fire chief concentrates on one aspect of city operations. But, much like an assistant city manager, a CIO must look across the entire organization.
“It’s a difficult thing to do,” acknowledges Todd Sander, who recently left the city of Tucson’s CIO post to become chief operating officer of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based nonprofit Engaging and Empowering Citizenship and director of the organization’s Amber Alert 911 Consortium. “But it’s even more difficult to help the organization understand that is what you are doing. You have to demonstrate that your interests are the broader organizational interests, even if that means on a particular issue or decision, the IT department may not get what it wants.”
That additional responsibility entails making increasingly important decisions. “The decisions get a little tougher because the responsibility load is a little heavier,” explains Des Moines’ Armstrong. “You have access to the entire organization and the opportunity to integrate what you might not have been aware of before.”
For example, investors are eyeing Des Moines as a site for a casino. Because only a nonprofit organization can hold a gaming license in Iowa, it’s possible that the city might become a partner. At a minimum, any city involvement would generate some sort of municipal funding stream—something a CIO might not know much about. But, as assistant city manager, Armstrong would know about the possibility and could ask that some of the revenue from that potential funding stream be used for IT.
Being in on the ground level of decision-making also puts CIOs in the position of being able to reject a proposal or to rework an idea that doesn’t make sense.
“If the MIS [management information systems] director starts heading down roads that I’m not willing to support, it’s important to have professional communications and cut that off, so someone doesn’t waste a lot of time,” says Mitchell Johnson, who was director of technology and facilities for Greensboro, N.C., from 1997 until 2000, when he became an assistant city manager for the municipality. In 2003, Johnson was promoted to deputy city manager.
“In most organizations, the MIS director isn’t going to know how money is spent in other departments,” he explains. “Part of your role in the manager’s office is to make sure that you’re spending dollars on things that are going to get the greatest overall benefit for the organization.”
“When you get to my role or become an assistant [city manager], you truly are at a higher level and you have decision-making authority,” Johnson adds. “It is much more effective, saves a lot of money and a lot of headaches, and prevents some bad decisions that [otherwise] might get made.”
Functioning as both an assistant city manager and a technologist “makes it much easier to stay aligned with the overall organizational strategy, because I’m helping to develop it,” says Sander, who was the top deputy CIO in Washington State until returning in 1998 to his native Arizona as Tucson’s IT director. He moved to the manager’s office when his title changed to CIO in 2001 and served as an assistant city manager, even though he didn’t carry the official title.
“I’m there not only as the IT director, but also representing the manager’s office, so whatever deals we make tend to stick,” Sander explained in an interview before he left the CIO post. “And it takes out that extra layer of management involvement because the manager’s office is involved in all the technology discussions and decisions.”
Although Philadelphia doesn’t have a city manager, the underlying functions of a CIO are the same. As the city’s CIO since May 2001, Dianah Neff is a department head and one of 12 executives who serve in the mayor’s Cabinet.
Her multifaceted role is different from her previous job as deputy city manager and CIO for San Diego, as well as her previous stints in IT roles for Bellevue, Wash.; San Bernardino County, Calif.; and Palo Alto, Calif.
The biggest difference between those jobs and her current position in Philadelphia is that she had previously answered to a city manager or county administrator. Now Neff reports to an elected official, Mayor John Street. As CIO positions become more political, she says, IT’s organizational stability can be an issue, so Neff needed to show that she was committed to Philadelphia.
Neff says her dual role as CIO and Cabinet member makes her job easier. “When you’re looking to align with the organization and, as in this case, when you have a strong mayor who sets objectives for the organization, it’s easier to align with those projects from a big-picture perspective,” she explains.
The city departments submit hundreds of requests annually for different IT projects. Evaluating each request individually without a top-down management perspective could result in funding a series of non-interoperable stovepipe operations. Philadelphia avoids that pitfall, says Neff, explaining that the mayor issued five directives on which the city was to focus. “We use them as criteria as we develop portfolio management to determine which projects will get funded,” she says.
Neff is on a decision-making IT governing board that includes three other Cabinet members: the chief financial officer, the mayor’s chief of staff for operations and the managing director. The board views IT from an enterprise perspective, and a majority vote is required to approve any policy or direction.
“It’s challenging,” Neff admits. “It would be easier to set your own direction, but this is better for the organization. The final decisions are made at the top.”
While the duality of the CIO/city manager role is clearly tied to technology, tech skills alone aren’t enough for professional success. “More than anything else, we tend to be leaders and managers first and technologists second,” says Armstrong, who oversees Des Moines’ IT, finance and human resources departments.
Sander notes that Tucson is a billion-dollar-a-year organization with 17 different lines of business. “By understanding enough about each of them through the technology piece, I was able to move up to the next level and start to contribute much more at the general management level,” he explains.
When he was the CIO, Sander’s responsibilities included Tucson’s public-access television channel and its Web site, regulation of the cable company, and the dispatch systems for the police and fire departments. He also served as interim director of the city’s General Services Department, which encompasses fleet and maintenance units, architects, engineers, facilities and the 911 call center.
Handling the responsibilities of CIO and deputy city manager “allowed me to do all of those things, which would have been much more difficult to do if I had been rigidly settled in the IT director’s position,” Sander points out.
The bottom line in achieving success is possessing strong leadership skills. “Technology is front and center,” concludes Greensboro’s Johnson. “If you have good executive leadership, you’re just as viable as someone else to move up.”
While the duality of the CIO/city manager role is clearly tied to technology, tech skills alone aren’t enough for professional success.
A CIO is usually one of only three or four employees in city management who get to see the entire organization at a detailed level.
“The decisions get a little tougher, because the responsibility load is a little heavier,” Armstrong says of his dual title. But he still counts himself among those technologists who, on finding management doors open to them, are willing to step through in order to advance their careers.
As the municipality’s lead technologist until five years ago, Johnson says his current job as deputy city manager gives him greater decision-making authority. “Part of your role in the manager’s office is to make sure that you’re spending dollars on things that are going to get the greatest overall benefit for the organization,” he explains.
This IT veteran has served as CIO and/or deputy city manager for several cities. In Philadelphia, she has a seat on the mayor’s Cabinet and sits on a board that makes IT funding and policy decisions. “It’s challenging,” Neff says, adding that the title is less important than being able to work where she is needed.
On being offered the assistant city manager title in Tucson, Sander says: “The title didn’t really mean anything to me. I didn’t understand how it fit into local government, and I didn’t want to give up the professional connection I had as a CIO.” So he took on the additional duties, but not the job title.