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Political Animals: City CIOs gaining clout

They're using hot new technologies to raise revenue -- and IT's status.

February 28, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - After years of operating out of the limelight, city CIOs are taking starring roles as municipal governments begin launching new technologies to cut costs or earn revenue.

The job market for city CIOs is heating up, but the required skills reach far beyond technology. To sell their governments and the public on new ideas like wireless broadband, municipal CIOs also need sharp communication skills and political know-how.

"Street smarts are needed," says Dianah Neff, CIO for the city of Philadelphia. City CIOs today "need to be more political, absolutely," she adds.

Neff survived a major political battle last year over city-provided wireless hot zones that would compete with offerings from private-sector carriers. "Politics was never in any of our training agendas to become CIOs," she says, "but [being politically savvy] is more of our job today."

Beyond Technology

Cities are looking for CIOs who are politically astute, have an eye on security, can improve city services such as public safety with a limited budget and can keep IT costs down, says Adam Kohn, vice chairman of Christian & Timbers, an executive recruitment firm in New York. "It's a big job, and if the city CIO messes up, it can be a public nightmare," he adds.

Neff knows the dangers. Last fall, she had what she calls an "unbelievable" experience dealing with the Pennsylvania legislature and lobbyists for local exchange carriers. It ultimately resulted in passage of legislation permitting Philadelphia to move forward with the creation of wireless mesh hot zones but restricting other jurisdictions in the state from doing so. "We won the battle but lost the war," she recalls.

Dianah Neff, CIO for the city of Philadelphia
Dianah Neff, CIO for the city of Philadelphia
Image Credit: Scott Nibauer

Neff had been the top IT professional at four other cities, but last year's battle taught her how to work with a much more diverse group of stakeholders than she ever had before, including state legislators, private-sector lobbyists and citizens groups of all flavors. "It has really broadened my scope of influence," she says.

The past year has taught Neff that city CIOs more than ever need good people skills and especially the ability to advocate for technology for a broad audience unversed in IT. "I've learned that you don't talk to a mayor about grid computing," she says. "You talk about how this technology is going to reduce costs."

Other city IT leaders agree that their roles are more vital—and more demanding—than ever. Bill Marion, information systems director for Milpitas, Calif., says his job has become more complex as the IT department has gotten more involved with general operations and city planning. For example, IT is helping urban planning groups decide where conduits for data cables will be run.

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