The CIO at the Top Table?

(originally published as a Veredus blog here )

In an article this week on Government Computing I drew out some points that had emerged at the Socitm Conference in 2012 with conclusions for 2013.  In particular I mentioned that:

“The role of the IT profession within local authorities’ wider change agenda got some attention. Many of the people and process skills of change are baked in to the way that IT operates, yet many CIOs report a lack of recognition and traction in their authority, perceived as ‘techies in the server room’ rather than as change executives. How will the profession reposition itself – is the issue awareness or is there substance to address also?”

In this context it’s interesting to speculate on some of the blockages experienced by ambitious local government IT professionals who aspire to larger general management roles in due course.

• The Director of Resources Role.  The “obvious” career path for someone in IT towards the chief executive position is via the corporate director of resources role.  Often, elected members want an accountant for this role, and combine it with the statutory “section 151” role.  The legal requirement of the s.151 officer mean that it is advantageous to have the senior finance professional at the top table, and, understandably, especially in the current climate, members often want the best Finance lead they can get.  Not all authorities have a financially-qualified director of resources, but since many do, this narrows the pipe for IT professionals to progress.

• Reluctance to be “Corporate”.  I have detected in some individuals a sense that in order to progress to a corporate position one has to take on positions which will decide against the interests of the IT Department, albeit for the greater good.  I sometimes hear people talk of individuals who have done this as though they have betrayed their calling and turned their back on the profession (I exaggerate slightly to make the point).  The strong culture of IT as a profession and of IT departments therefore works against those who wish to leave.

• Career development.  It is relatively easy to develop a career focused on IT.  The challenges are real, fascinating, and continually changing.  There are well structured opportunities to network with colleagues in IT in other councils or other organisations.  Those role models at the top of the profession, are, by definition, those who chose to stay within it. By contrast it is harder to develop the networks for a future chief executive or resources director – where does one go to network with HR professionals, finance folk, policy wonks, lawyers…

There is a strong parallel with the HR profession, who often have similar debates about achieving top table status.  It is my experience that where the HR Director has a place at the top table it is (almost) invariably because of the particular strengths of the individual, rather than the job description or the post structure.  The chief executive and senior colleagues want the individual around the table because their input is known to be valuable, and not just in their area of formal responsibility.  Unfortunately there is a bit of a vicious circle about this – without opportunities to gain a corporate/strategic perspective it is hard to add value to it!  It is an interesting challenge for the profession (if it wishes) to seek opportunities to inculcate, and support their members who wish to develop, this wider perspective.

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