Outliving the Chief Digital Officer - a government CIO to do list

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 31, 2013

An interesting research note passed my desk this week from Gartner, written by Andrea DiMaio who in analyst terms is ‘Mr Digital Government’ as far as I’m concerned.

The topic was the evolving role of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) in government and how the rise (and rise) of such individuals will impact on other job functions, most notably the CIO of course but also the Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

This latter role is one we’ve been seeing a lot more of in UK government circles. Where once we had a national government CIO, that role has now vanished, replaced essentially by a Father, Son and Holy Ghost arrangement of CTO, Chief Operating Officer (COO) and what is effectively a CDO in the shape of the Head of the Government Digital Service (GDS).

At central government departmental level, the CTO title is also more prevalent. While CIOs still roam the corridors of Whitehall, the trend is most definitely towards the CTO role as the future. Or as one senior Whitehall person explained it me recently:

“We don’t really do CIOs around here any more.”

Bad memories

One reason for that is that the current UK government wants a clean break from the past in which the ‘oligopoly’ of major suppliers went rooting through the public sector purse while simultaneously failing to deliver value for money or even systems that actually worked.

As the decision-making structure that allowed this to become business as usual involved CIOs left, right and centre, best to part company with the title and move on.

Andrea DiMaio

So it is that in government circles in the UK today, largely driven by the belief system and worldview at GDS,  the two titles the ambitious public sector IT professional should be aiming for are CDO and CTO.

In the US, the government CIO is still in place in the form of Steven Van Roekel, but he’s supported by a CTO, Todd Park. Between them they bear responsibility for the US Federal Government digital strategy launched last year.

There’s no sign yet of national CDO in the US. Perhaps if there had been the high profile IT embarrassment around the Healthcare.gov web site - where citizens need to go to sign up for so-called Obamacare - might not have happened.

Writing in the New York Times, Clay Johnson, CEO of the Department of Better Technology, a nonprofit that develops technology for governments, and Harper Reed, former CTO of Obama for America, made the case to steal from the Brits, arguing:

“We need to create our own Government Digital Service.”

The Gartner view

All of which brings us back to Gartner’s expectations of how the government world will develop.

The firm predicts that by 2014, more than 20% of government organizations will have appointed a Chief Digital Officer while 10% will have created the position of Chief Data Officer and that these two will co-exist with CIOs and CTOs - for the time being.

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But longer term, the overlapping roles and the lack of a sufficiently clear distinction about responsibilities on information management, together with a loss of emphasis on and enthusiasm for digital and open government strategies, will mean taking some clear demarcation decisions.

DiMaio notes:

Digital government strategies issued in several jurisdictions during the past 12 months, as well as the continued momentum of open government, are bringing new leadership roles to the fore. 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.

In his briefing note - Beyond the Government CIO: Chief Data or Digital Officers? - DiMaio argues:

The development and implementation of digital government strategies is challenging the current remit of government CIOs by leading to the creation of new roles.

The unclear and reactive nature of executive roles, like chief data officer, will cause them to become irrelevant or be merged under a different role.

The blurring distinction between chief digital officer and CIO, caused by the need to balance constituent value creation and operation efficiency, will lead one of them to be replaced by or start reporting to the other.


The most vulnerable job function will turn out to be Chief Data Officer, reckons Gartner, postulating that by 2016, over 90% of such positions will be subsumed by the CIO or the Chief Digital Officer as they fall prey to:

tension between the internal information management focus of the CIO and the external focus of the Chief Digital Officer as information as a strategic asset for constituent value will intensify.

But the CIO him or herself is also on collision course with the Chief Digital Officer with Gartner predicting that by 2017, more than 60% of government organizations with a CIO and a Chief Digital Officer will cull one of them, Gartner argues:

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 on information.

By that time [3-5 years hence], all information will be digital, with other forms being a copy or an original for digital information.

But despite the catnip nature of the term ‘digital’, it could well be a surprise victory for the CIO in this tussle with Gartner suggesting:

Most likely, the Chief Digital Officer role will be absorbed by — or become indistinguishable from — the CIO role.

In a minority of organizations, the reverse might be true, mostly due to the negative connotation of the CIO as a "role of the past."

In some cases, both roles will be kept, but one reporting to the other (the CIO being in most cases at a higher level than the CTO).

It is quite possible that the new integrated title will be Chief Digital Information Officer.

So if you’re a CIO with aspirations to become a CDIO, it’s time to get your career game plan in place. DiMaio advises:

  •  Establish good working relationships with additional roles introduced to support the digital strategy.
  • Require a clear demarcation between your role and other roles' responsibilities on information by defining clear principles about ownership, purpose and use.
  • Assess whether you can and are willing to take over some or all of the responsibilities of other roles and build a road map to do so.
  • Focus on playing a key role in managing internal information and leveraging external information to demonstrably create public value.


It’s a cogent analysis of shifting terminologies and responsibilities and one that I can see being played out in front of me in UK government circles.

Whether DiMaio’s prediction that the CIO can hold his or her own remains to be seen of course.

But in passing I’d mention a throwaway comment I heard from one exec at a large public sector IT services provider who declared he

“much preferred dealing with the old CIOs. It was so much easier doing business with most of them.”

Perhaps reason enough to encourage the rise of the new order?



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