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The Evolving Role of IT Leadership in Local Government: Meeting Today’s Challenges

“While IT has always been a central component in government agencies, recent developments have intensified the need for robust IT leadership,” writes Steve Monaghan, Nevada County’s Information & General Services Agency director and former CIO.

Steve Monaghan, Nevada County’s award-winning former CIO who’s now director of the county’s Information & General Services Agency, posted this essay on LinkedIn this week. In addition to his role overseeing the county’s $24 million operations budget and $20 million capital budget, and over 120 employees, Monaghan is also a past president and current member of the California County Information Services Directors Association (CCISDA), through which he created and helps lead training programs for current and emerging leaders.

The gov tech industry frequently highlights the array of incredible government technology projects and achievements. However, as remarkable as these are, it’s important to recognize that such accomplishments are not possible without robust IT leadership at the foundational level. This crucial aspect often receives considerably less attention than it deserves.

This article serves as an update to my 2015 piece, written during the launch of the California County Technology Executive credential program. Back then, the primary driver was on the “Silver Tsunami,” a challenge that persists today. Now, this issue is compounded by modern drivers of change in IT leadership, notably the advent of artificial intelligence and growing IT regulations and risks.

Information technology (IT) leadership in the public sector is at a pivotal juncture. While IT has always been a central component in government agencies, recent developments have intensified the need for robust IT leadership. This urgency is magnified by the concurrent retirement of seasoned IT leaders and the rapid advancement of technologies like AI and cloud computing.

In my previous 24 years as a county government chief information officer (CIO), I have witnessed this transformation firsthand. Today, technology is not only about managing systems but also about spearheading innovation and embracing digital transformation. The pace of change is exhilarating, yet daunting, especially given the escalating cybersecurity threats that loom over our digital landscape.

Governments must navigate these challenges to fully leverage technology’s potential. This requires a reassessment of the public sector’s IT leadership model, drawing inspiration from private-sector companies that prioritize technology as a core aspect of their business strategy.

Key Challenges in Public-Sector IT Leadership

1. The Silver Tsunami: An accelerating rate of retirement among public agency IT leaders poses a significant challenge. The aging workforce, coupled with a growing retirement rate, necessitates urgent succession planning and talent development strategies.

2. Cybersecurity risks: The growing sophistication and frequency of cyber threats require IT leaders to prioritize robust cybersecurity measures, understanding that these are integral to the organization’s overall health and resilience.

3. Emerging technologies and innovation: Technologies like cloud services, IoT, smart cities/counties and AI are not only IT tools but also enablers of organizational transformation. IT leaders must balance innovation with risk management, data governance and strategic integration.

4. Data management: Balancing citizen privacy with transparency demands is a delicate task. IT leaders must navigate complex regulations like HIPAA while promoting open data initiatives and e-services.

5. Changing workforce dynamics: The millennial workforce seeks purpose and flexibility, challenging traditional IT management approaches. IT leaders must adapt to these new dynamics to attract, develop, and retain talent.

6. Complex IT environments: The rapid introduction of new technologies, alongside outdated systems (IT rust), creates intricate IT environments. Leaders must continuously update their knowledge and skills to manage these effectively.

7. Skill gaps: A significant skill gap in the IT workforce limits the ability to meet organizational demands. This is exacerbated by the shortage of graduates in relevant fields like computer science, cybersecurity, and now AI.

Building the Next Generation of IT Leaders

Public-sector entities are diligently cultivating a new generation of IT leaders through diverse initiatives. These efforts encompass executive leadership courses, in-house leadership academies, and specialized qualifications such as the Certified Government Chief Information Officer (CGCIO) certification. A notable example in California is the County CIO Association’s County Technology Executive Credential program, executed in collaboration with the California State Association of Counties (CSAC). This program, now in its eighth year, emphasizes executive IT leadership and the delivery of value. It educates not only on IT leadership, but on how California counties operate. To date, it has successfully credentialed over 180 graduates.

Effective IT leadership in the public sector today requires a balanced skill set:
  • Understanding organizational dynamics and driving forces
  • Supervising and nurturing teams
  • Executive management and strategic leadership
  • Mastery of IT principles and practices
  • Driving organizational development, systems and culture
  • Leveraging technology to deliver customer value

Today’s IT leaders must realize that the technical expertise that brought them success thus far will not be the sole factor in their future success. Instead, true achievement is defined by their ability to build high-performing IT teams, work environments (the “IT Delivery Machine”), and leading these teams in delivering value to all stakeholders.

As we embrace this era of digital transformation, the need for sophisticated, well-rounded IT leadership becomes increasingly crucial. It’s not just about managing technology but about integrating it into the fabric of our organizations and communities.

This article was edited lightly for style.
Steve Monaghan was Nevada County’s chief information officer for almost 23 years before being named director of the county's Information and General Services Agency. He is also the Nevada County Emergency Services chief and the county purchasing agent. Monaghan is a member and past president of the California County Information Services Directors Association (CCISDA), through which he created and helps lead training programs for current and emerging leaders. Monaghan also serves on the Rural County Representatives of California’s Broadband Advisory Committee and on the Cybersecurity Program Advisory Board at California State University at Chico, where he received his bachelor’s degree in computer science.