Whether partnering on projects with huge consulting firms or working with elected officials to roll out collaboration software for small town agencies, local and state government IT professionals are behind the eight ball.
While they may have the technical know-how to implement complex IT initiatives, few have the leadership, political and project management expertise to formulate IT strategy, work with global vendors and key officials, and get the most from IT investments.
That’s where new government-specific IT certification programs come in. Programs such as the state of Arizona’s new State Project Management Certification, as well as certified CIO programs offered by the Florida Institute for Government at Florida State University (FSU) and the Center for Public Technology at the University of North Carolina (UNC), all aim to strengthen government IT leadership skills.
“Whether it’s an overhaul at the Department of Revenue or providing mental health services for the county through a state contract, we have situations where we’re managing the Accentures, the Magellans and the IBMs of the world,” says Chris Cummiskey, CIO for the state of Arizona and director for the Arizona Government IT Agency, which runs Arizona’s project management certification program. “We want to make sure our personnel are at the top of their game when it comes to managing projects. Otherwise, you see an imbalance between the state team and the vendor teams, and it puts the state at a real disadvantage.”
Arizona’s program differs from traditional project management certifications, such as the Project Management Institute certification. “We take an eye toward not only the fundamentals of project management, but we also examine the various requirements and oversight responsibilities that come only with state IT projects,” Cummiskey says. “It’s vendor management principles, writing an RFP and communicating and functioning effectively with your vendor partner as a government representative.”
Eventually, all large state projects will require certified IT staff, he says. “We’re giving agencies a year or two to increase their portfolio of certified project managers,” says Cummiskey. “And then starting next year, the state authorization committee for IT projects, which oversees projects of $1 million or greater, is going to require this as a fundamental element of approval.”
While Arizona focuses on project management, UNC’s and FSU’s programs are concerned more with improving the leadership and management expertise of IT pros to better prepare them to lead IT in state and local government.
According to Shannon Schelin, director of the Center of Public Technology at the UNC School of Government, who developed the Certified Government CIO (CGCIO) program, most local government IT staffers work their way up the ranks, from programmer to technical lead to project manager and then eventually to CIO. But as they get promoted from one job to the next, they leave their comfort zones and are confronted with a lack of key managerial and leadership skills.
“They have incredible skills in terms of programming, running networks and managing routers, but they don’t have leadership or communications skills, and they don’t necessarily have an awareness of the enterprise as a whole from a government standpoint. They tend to be very siloed and think just about technology versus thinking about supporting the business of government through technical applications,” Schelin says. “I tell students there are no technology projects — there are only enterprise projects supported by technology solutions. They need to make that mind shift, and that’s what our course is built around.”
Unlike some other CIO programs, such as the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business’s recently launched CIO Academy, CGCIO focuses on issues unique to a government IT shop. These include the legal and political issues surrounding purchasing, issuing requests for proposals and applying for grants, and dealing with municipal departments and citizens.
Angela Tousey, CIO for the town of Clayton, N.C., and a graduate of the first CGCIO class at UNC, says that mind shift was tough to navigate, but it’s where the course has the most value.
“That was the biggest thing for me, personally realizing that I need to focus on the big picture,” she says, adding that she is the only IT staffer for the town of nearly 7,000. “I was stuck in the land of worrying about how many computers are going down today. But where I really needed to focus is on getting our departments to communicate better, making our presence known on the Internet and expanding our services online. All that was falling by the wayside.”
After attending the program, Tousey decided to contract with a third party to handle desktop support and other low-level IT duties, and now she is guiding the rollout of new collaboration software that will help the town departments communicate better. “I want to be able to use my skills the best I can to make this town stand out, and now I have the focus and expertise to do that,” she says.
Similarly, Roy Mentkow, director of technology for the city of Roanoke, Va., and a 25-year veteran of IT, says focus was his key takeaway from CGCIO certification class. “I had some of these skills already, but to be honest, there were some gaps,” he says. “Like the whole concept of identifying key emerging technologies — things that are going to transform the way we do business. Through that class, I became very focused on that and less on the day-to-day bits and bytes.”
He also credits the course with making him a better marketer. “In the end, it’s about engaging your customers — the city manager, the city council and other elected officials — and helping them to see the value of your services,” Mentkow says.
Attendees of such government-specific programs don’t view their new certifications as a way to bolster their prestige or paychecks, however.
“I haven’t thought about how it could make me more marketable,” Tousey says. “I’m not in this for the money; no one in government is. We’re here to help promote the town and make good things happen.”
Recruiters say that’s a good attitude, because today such certifications are mostly just a plus, and employers tend to weigh actual leadership and project management experience heavier.
“Most employers pick people who have something on their resume that points to completing a project — someone who has managed the full lifecycle of a project versus someone who just has a certification,” says Grant Gordon, managing director at Intronic Solutions Group, a recruiter in Overland Park, Kan. “Certifications like this are a plus, but experience counts more.”
Candidates considering the CGCIO certification, however, see it as a way to prove to their municipalities that they are in government IT for the long haul and interested in pursuing management positions.
“I’ve been in IT for 15 years, so it’s not like I don’t have the technical skills,” says George Curtis, IT analyst for the city of New Britain, Conn. Curtis’s boss recently retired, leaving him just one rung below top IT leadership in the city.
“It’s a matter of saying I can lead a city because of my other skills, my project skills, my administrative skills and my technological foresight. Since the certification is specific to government, I’m hoping the mayor will say ‘OK, it’s not just this guy who worked here. He can really tackle the job.’”
Technology unemployment is at 2 percent nationally, and for those with college degrees, it’s at 1.8 percent. Full employment is considered anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent unemployment.
“There really is a lure for talent today, so when a government agency or anyone else is looking for talent, they’ll be looking for pedigree, experience and they’ll probably look past a lack of certification,” says Sean Ebner, vice president of professional services for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based recruiter Spherion Atlantic Enterprises. “But as the economy changes, and supply catches up with demand, then you have more of a competitive landscape in the candidate community and things like certification have more weight.”
The University of North Carolina and Florida State University teamed up to create a nationwide government CIO certification program aimed at state and local IT execs.
“I think the national certification will prove to be a very worthwhile program for anybody who attends,” says Roy Mentkow, director of technology for the city of Roanoke, Va. “It’s a great program, and everyone should have a chance to participate in it.”
He should know. He was the first out-of-stater admitted to the government CIO certification program at the Center for Public Technology within UNC’s School of Government.
That CIO certification program launched nearly four years ago, and at the time it was aimed at city and local government IT execs. That program was so successful that other IT execs started asking for the program to expand.
Shannon Schelin, director of the program, says the institution created a program for state agency CIOs at the request of North Carolina’s CIO and deputy CIO. Last June, the group launched a national CIO certification program through a partnership with Government Information Management Sciences (GMIS). The national program combines curricula from the UNC program and a Florida-specific program run by FSU’s Florida Institute of Government.
“FSU hooked up with the Public Technology Institute to move their program into a national program, and UNC did the same with GMIS,” says Dr. Lee Mandell, director of IT and research/CIO for the North Carolina League of Municipalities in Raleigh, and a guest professor in the UNC program. “It occurred to all of us that there didn’t need to be two national programs.”
He says the two schools currently have a draft agreement and are hammering out the details. The two plan to offer the national certification, called the Certified Public CIO certification, as early as next year.