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The Chief Information Officer position at the Ministry of Education (A CIO in the MOE?)

Michael Trucano's picture
I like drawing boxes, what (and who) should I put in them?
I like drawing boxes,
what (and who) should I put in them?

When, two decades ago, I first started helping people who were investigating the uses of new technologies in education, many of the initial inquiries I received were quite similar. Whether it was from governments in some of the most developed countries in Europe or Asia, or from non-profit groups (and some governments) in some of the least developed countries in Africa or Latin America, people had very specific questions about hardware. What processor should we buy for our computer? How much memory do we need? Over time, as we all became more experienced and savvy about choices related to where to invest scarce resources, questions about devices and their specific attributes gave way to those about processes and approaches -- and about people and institutions.

Recent work at the World Bank has investigated a specific type of institution -- the national educational technology agency -- and its often critical role in support of large scale ICT/education efforts in many countries around the world. Often times, such an institution operates at arm's length from (for example) the ministry of education, with the ministry providing the agency with strategic direction (and funding). Models vary (we document a number of them in a recent book), but, generally speaking, these tend to be organizations focused on >> doing <<. Over time, such institutions become centers of technological competence that can far outstrip what is found within the leadership of their country's ministry of education. They are technical organizations, staffed in large part (but not exclusively) by technical people.

During a series of off-the-record discussions with groups of education ministers earlier this year who were 'struggling with the ICT stuff’, one of the ministers (who had previously worked in the private sector, and whose spouse had worked for a tech firm) shared his interest in creating a CIO (Chief Information Officer) position within his ministry. He wanted someone with dedicated resposbility to help him make sense of all of the things that were changing as a result of new technologies, to help set related strategic directions within the ministry, and to oversee this implementation. About the only thing that the ministers in both ministerial discussions agreed on that day (other than that they were having challenges in dealing with teachers unions -- always a common topic for bonding and commiseration for these sorts of folks, I find) was that they liked the idea of having a CIO.

What exactly does a Chief Information Officer (CIO) do,
and why might ministries of education consider creating such a position?

 
The CIO job can mean different things to different people. The roles and functions of a CIO have changed over time -- and indeed, are in a near-constant state of flux, as technologies change, and as organizational business models change as a result. When it comes to education, I can point to no data or reports related to the prevalence or utility of the CIO role. Everything I relate here is based on individual conversations I’ve had. That said, I’ve had many of them, enough to sense that there is something going on here, even if the trend is basically undocumented.

Quickly:

  • ‘CIO’ (Chief Information Officer) is an executive-level job title held by the person in an organization with oversight of ICT strategy, as well as the technology utilized to implement, support and sustain this strategy.
  • CIOs report directly to the head of the organization (CEO, in the case of a company; minister, in the case of a government department).
  • Historically, the CIO position was created in order to meet business needs within corporations; as governments become more tech-savvy and -dependent, CIO positions are becoming more common within and across government in many places as well. (Here's some useful background on the history of the CIO job, as well as a discussions of common roles and responsibilities.)
  • Especially in middle and low income countries with many large, strategic 'e-government' projects, you'll increasingly find a CIO position that reports directly to the president or prime minister and/or within the Ministry of ICT. 
  • In my experience: Many, if not most, ministries of education have Chief Financial Operators (CFOs), but few ministries of education have CIOs ... yet. (In ten years, I bet that most middle income countries will. Off the top of my head, I know that the U.S. and New Zealand have people with this specific title; I suspect there are others.)
  • There is usually a 'director of ICT' or some such position in most ministries of education, but this is often a few levels down in the hierarchy from where you would find a CIO. The related terms of reference for this person usually describes someone at the head of what is considered a 'cost center' within the ministry, not someone involved in strategic direction or oversight. More generally: A Director of ICT in most ministries of education is typically a mid-level position, managing the teams responsible for making sure that everything keeps working (the equipment, the servers, the web site). It’s a technical job, overseeing technical people, with oversight of day-to-day operations. Basically: A CIO is forward-facing, while a Director of ICT is inward-facing.

 
Given the strategic importance that ICTs are meant to have going forward in the operations of many ministries of education, especially in countries where most schools have (more or less) been connected to the Internet, and where (more or less) most kids have access to computing devices, should such places consider creating a CIO positions to help manage the increased complexity that the >> transition to digital << is likely to bring about?

There is no right answer to this question. But it might be a question worth asking in many places, even if the answer is 'no', or 'no, not yet'.

Why a Ministry of Education might want to consider creating a CIO position:

  • high level oversight of ICT matters is currently being by a deputy minister, assistant minister, vice minister, etc. who has many other responsibilities not related to ICT, and dealing with 'the ICT stuff' is increasingly monopolizing her time (e.g. the Assistant Mininster for Planning and ICT is spending most of her time on technology stuff and not on 'planning')
  • the leadership needs of a ministry related to ICTs have grown beyond what an ICT director could reasonably be expected to do
  • a ministry wishes to signal a change in direction or new set of new priorities, and the creation of a CIO position is part of this process
  • a minister wishes to attract someone from business into the ministry at a high level (potentially related: the minister wishes to project the idea that the ministry now operates more like a business, for better or for worse)
  • a minister would like to establish a potential promotion path for top technical employees in the ministry
  • a ministry needs a dedicated, high level executive counterpart for interactions on technology issues with other parts of government (such as with the Ministry of ICT, or with a CIO who reports directly to to a country's president or prime minister)

Why a Ministry of Education might not want consider creating a CIO position:

  • simply put: it's too early; a ministry does not use ICT to a significant level itself, nor is ICT use prevalent across the education system
  • the country, and MOE, is quite small; a (for example) deputy minister for administration, operations and ICT can reasonably be expected to handle all related responsibilities
  • things work well now, why upset the status quo?
  • there is a stigma associated with the CIO role in the country (the old joke that CIO stands for 'career is over' in many companies resonates less today than it did perhaps a decade ago, but the sense that these types of roles, as currently forumulated within some organizations, are basically impossible jobs, still lingers in some environments)
  • there are already too many senior level positions in the ministry

Not all of these reasons may be compelling or relevant, of course (and there may be other ones as well).

The CIO title itself may not be necessary or useful. It might be, for example, that a ministry decides to designate a 'Deputy Minister for ICT' who functions as a de facto CIO. What is perhaps most important for a minister of education to consider is the extent to which she wants someone close-by who is the go-to person on technology stuff -- not someone far down the hall or on another floor (or in another building), but rather someone right next door who plays a central role in helping to shape and oversee policies and practices related to ICTs within the ministry. A CIO should be equally adept at communicating with a minister as she is with the technical managers and teams in the ministry (not an easy skill to develop or master, of course!). In some countries, the head of a national edtech agency takes on the de facto role of a CIO (and oversees an organization that takes care of many day-to-day responsibilities previously handled internally to a ministry, but which do not scale well within a ministry structure). The head of the edtech agency then reports to the minister, or assistant/deputy minister (models vary) – sometimes the line of reporting is to both the ministry of education and ministry of ICT.

(In related discussions where considerations around the potential for a CIO position is quite recent, I have encountered confusion over how a CIO differs from a CTO, or Chief Technology Officer. As this helpful article relates, "A CTO creates technology to sell to customers whereas a CIO focuses on managing infrastructure for the business operations." One comes across other 'C-level' positions in many large corporations these days, but I haven't run across most of these titles in my intereactions with government ministries.)

As they make larger and more strategic investments in ICTs, should ministries considering creating stand-alone CIO functions, as a way to bring added clarity to roles (and potentially clearer responsibility)?

Whether a segmenting of functional oversight and expertise within a CIO position is a good thing (or effective) will depend on specific contexts -- and perhaps, the personality traits and management styles of individual ministers. The official terms of reference for such a position might help a minister attract and recruit someone suitable, as opposed to what typically happens now, where someone, usually from a non-technical background, gets ‘ICT’ added to what is already an over-full portfolio of duties and responsibilities. The result: Education policies and projects that have ‘ICT’ as a key component suffer because no one really ‘understands the ICT’. 

In my experience, the responsibilities commonly handled by a ‘CIO’ in many ministries of education are currently invested in specific people, and are not assigned to a specific, defined function/role. A related problem: If that person leaves, not only does the related competence exit the ministry, but the related functional responsibility within the ministry hierarchy disappears. In a similar vein: In some ministries of education, especially those which are making huge investments in educational technologies supported by international donor agencies, a high-level ‘ICT Advisor’ position exists as a result of donor aid. Once the donor project is complete, the ICT advisor leaves and is not replaced. As a practical matter, as many (especially middle income) countries decide to make huge new investments in ICTs in their education system, it is often because they have a ‘visionary’ (and competent) minister in charge, with strong support from the president (prime minister, king, etc. -- people who have been working in this area for a while will probably be able to quickly cite some of the same notable people in this regard). When this competence is institutionalized in the person of the minister, and this minister changes, the function often effectively evaporates. 

If creating a CIO-type position (whatever it might be called) is seen to be potentially useful for a ministry of education, it should of course be considered within larger discussions and plans around a ministry's institutional capacity to plan, guide and implement ICT use across an education system, as well as how such capacity can grow, be sustained, evolve, and be nurtured over time. For better or worse, technology is changing the world; ministries of education have to figure out how to change as a result.

 
Note: The image use at the top of this blog post ("I like drawing boxes, what (and who) should I put in them?") is in the public domain (CC0 1.0). It comes courtesy of PixaBay.

Comments

Submitted by Keith Krueger on
Congratulations, Mike, for a very important and thoughtful blog on the importance of senior ICT in ed leadership positions. CoSN, the North American ed tech leadership nonprofit association, has been working to serve this audience for 25 years. While we are a "technology" association, the hardest part of making change happen with technology in schools is human and culture. We have found that building the human capacity/leadership in school systems is key. We use the generic term of CTO but we mean it to include the higher level functions that Mike (and the business community) call CIOs. We have defined those essential skills for this position and we have launched in America the first-in-the-world leadership certification for this position. CoSN is happy to share what we have learned.

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