For the last eight years, Grant Thornton has helped the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) conduct its annual CIO Survey. Released earlier this month, the annual survey gives CIOs around the country an opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions on matters of high importance. Graeme Finley, principal of Public Sector at Grant Thornton, gave MeriTalk State & Local a behind-the-scenes look at the survey, as well as his thoughts on this year’s findings.

Graeme Finley oversees NASCIO’s annual CIO Survey for Grant Thornton. (Photo: Grant Thornton)

“We were really trying to find an opportunity to engage with the state information technology community in a way that would be useful to both Grant Thornton and the state CIO community,” said Finley, in regard to why Grant Thornton partnered with NASCIO on the survey. “It’s helpful for state CIOs to see how their peers are thinking about different technologies and the role a CIO should play in state government. It’s a win-win for Grant Thornton, NASCIO, and the CIO community.”

CIOs can also use the survey internally with their teams, to discuss what’s happening in other CIO offices around the country, and with their governor and legislators.

“CIOs can use it with the governor’s office or state legislator,” Finley said. “If they have a proposal it gives a tool to have that dialogue. It’s an educational tool for CIOs and their teams, and it can help support advocacy with elected officials.”

The survey’s timeline is keyed off of NASCIO’s annual conference, which happened earlier this month in Austin. Work begins in February, Finley explained.

Starting in February or early March, Grant Thornton looks to NASCIO’s annual State CIO Top Ten Priorities for potential survey topics. Next, Finley explains that Grant Thornton looks to surveys for previous years. They consider questions they’ve already asked, to get good trend data, as well as questions they haven’t asked in a few years that might need revisiting. Additionally, there are some questions that are just always asked, Finley said, which gives Grant Thornton and NASCIO strong longitudinal data. The topic list is drafted by March and sent to the NASCIO executive committee for feedback. Once feedback is incorporated, the team at Grant Thornton starts drafting questions.

“We generally try to have the questions 80 percent done by the midyear NASCIO conference in April,” Finley said.

At the midyear conference, Grant Thornton conducts in-person interviews with CIOs. Grant Thornton picks three topics from the survey, and then CIOs can pick the topic they are most passionate about. The in-person interview and survey responses are kept anonymous, so CIOs feel more comfortable speaking honestly.

“These interviews give us great feedback on the questions themselves, but also a lot of color commentary for the final survey report,” Finley said.

After another review from the executive committee, the survey goes out in late May to early June and runs through late July.

The role of CIO varies greatly depending on the state. In some states, CIOs are Cabinet-level officials and play a significant role in shaping IT policy for the state. In other states, their role is less policy focused and more concerned with back-end IT issues. Conducting an interview with a specific but varied group of respondents can present challenges. In the survey, NASCIO and Grant Thornton ask what the respondent thinks the role of CIO should be, which can solicit a wide variety of answers. Finley said that this question can provide an opportunity for CIOs who would like a larger role in the state to advocate for one.

“It gives NASCIO and CIOs a tool to say there are various models for a CIO role, but this is what our members recommend,” Finley said.

Many of the questions are simply taking the temperature of what’s going on in each state, so then it doesn’t really matter if the state is centralized or federated, or if the CIO plays a policy role or not. Finley also noted that regardless of how the state is organized or how decision-making is distributed, the CIO tends to be held reliable for all IT projects in the state–even if they don’t have control over the project.

When asked what was the most significant finding from this year’s survey, Finley said it wasn’t about the response to any individual question, but rather emerging themes on how things have trended over the last few years.

“It goes to the role of the CIO and how that role is changing over time,” Finley said. “There are these waves of technology disruption that come every decade or so. There are very few CIOs that think of themselves as the person who owns all the assets and the person who will deliver all the services. Now it’s about delivering services to customers by sourcing products and services from wherever that makes the most sense–internally or with outside partners. CIOs are now in the model of the being the broker, sourcing products and resources from all these different places. It’s the new normal.”

Finley said this year there was further confirmation of the broker model.

“Now we’re looking at how far does the broker model go and what is the next iteration. Now some CIOs are looking at outsourcing the mainframe, which has always been something the CIO managed internally. Now there’s a discussion as to who should deliver it. It’s taking the broker model to its logical conclusion.”

With Internet of Things (IoT) and other emerging technologies coming to the forefront, there is a growing conversation as to what the CIO should manage and what counts as information technology. IoT could potentially unleash billions of sensors and devices on a state’s network–necessitating management and oversight. The question is still out there as to whether this new fleet of devices should come under the purview of the CIO.

“If you talked to people five years ago about what a CIO is responsible for, the ‘fleet’ wouldn’t be one of them, but now that’s a serious question,” Finley said. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty around that. How does a CIO adapt moving forward? There’s even the question about what is information technology–how do you define the boundary as to what’s IT? That’s an open question in a lot of states.”


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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs