Public-sector CIOs head to the exits

However, private-sector CIOs may be spending more time at one job, survey finds

At a time of government cutbacks, the tenures of public-sector CIOs are growing increasingly shorter than those of their private-sector counterparts, a new Gartner survey finds.

In 2012, the average length of time a local, state or federal CIO in the U.S. and Canada stayed in his post was 4.2 years, the same as 2011. But in 2013 that figure declined to 3.4 years.

In contrast, the average tenure for private-sector CIOs in the U.S. and Canada was five years in 2011, 4.7 years in 2012 and 5.7 years this year.

Gartner's data is based on its annual survey of nearly 2,000 CIOs from all over the world, and from all industries. The survey was conducted in the fourth quarter of last year.

There is no single explanation for the shrinking tenure of public-sector CIOs. The recent election may have played a role, but the federal sequester, salary freezes and public-sector bankruptcies may be responsible as well. Another contributing factor may be that CIOs who put off retirement during the economic downturn are now choosing to leave their jobs.

Whatever the reasons, Gartner analyst Rick Howard said, "government CIO tenure is shrinking at a time when dependence on information and data in government is increasing."

Carlos Ramos, CIO of the California state government, said he recently saw data indicating that the average tenure of state CIOs was 2.8 years. He said there could be several reasons explaining why it's so short.

In some cases, a state CIO is appointed at the will of an elected official. Ramos himself, for example, was appointed by California's governor in 2011.

Another reason: The salaries of public-sector CIOs, are significantly lower than those of their private-sector counterparts. "Public-sector CIOs often leverage their credentials to go off into the private sector to make more money," said Ramos.

Moreover, public-sector CIOs must deal with diffuse decision-making and bureaucratic processes that can be trying, and there is also "little tolerance for failure of an IT initiative in the public sector," said Ramos.

Bill Schrier, who served as CTO of the Seattle city government for nearly nine years and now has program management responsibilities with the office of Washington state's CIO, said the public nature of the job and the constant exposure to media scrutiny can take a toll on some people.

Organizational issues can also be stressful issue for public-sector CIOs. Many large government entities don't have consolidated IT organizations, and instead have multiple IT shops which each have their own directors and CIOs. "This makes it really hard for the central CIO to succeed because he/she is continually herding cats to get anything done," said Schrier.

But he said tenure may be more stable on the local level. When Seattle changed mayors, Schrier was retained. Most cities and counties are not run by elected officials, but rather by professional city or county managers. Those managers often have tenures of a decade or more, so changes in IT management aren't likely to happen as frequently as they do at, say, the state level, he said.

Brenda Decker, the CIO of the Nebraska state government and president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said government CIOs don't take these jobs for the money, benefits or recognition. "People that take government CIO jobs do it because they have a desire to serve the public and their state," she said.

And with that mindset, they may also take that job "with a predetermined period of time that they are planning to make the commitment to the state," she said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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