Can Government CIOs Avoid Politics?

The short answer, as known by everyone who has been a government Chief Information Officer, is a resounding “NO”.

This question is becoming more urgent as a new federal government administration in Washington charts its own, unique, path of policies and directives.   But it is a question which is lurking in the shadows of the march of technology, and will emerge as a more painful question for CIOs soon.

korematsu-fred-googleTechnology companies and executives have tried to stay apart from politics.  Taking sides on political questions is usually the recipe for customer disaffection and even a boycott.  #deleteuber has gone viral in the past few days as customers perceived Uber lacked opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration.   In response to that same order, many have called for a boycott of Starbucks after its CEO planned to hire 10,000 immigrants, responding to that same presidential order.  Most companies involved in technology are now taking sides on this political issue.  Google, for example, wryly protested the order by putting an image of Fred Korematsu on its search site.  Korematsu protested the internment (by Executive Order) of Japanese-American’s in World War II.

Since the emergence of the role of chief information officer in the 1990s, federal, state and large city CIOs have always been involved in politics.  They work for elected officials who are members of political parties, and are expected to have allegiance to those individuals and those parties.

On the other hand, CIOs of smaller cities and counties – usually those with a professional city or county manager – often have long tenures if they are professionally competent.   Steve Monaghan of Nevada County, California, has served in that role since 1999.  Phil Bertolini of Oakland County, Michigan, has served as CIO and Deputy County Administrator since 2005 and was information technology director prior to that.

Competent and politically savvy CIOs of larger cities and counties have survived changes in their executives too – witness Joe Marcella’s 18 years in Las Vegas.  Others have successfully moved between jobs in major jurisdictions such as Cathy Maras who started as CIO in Cook County and is now in Bexar County (San Antonio) or Steve Reneker who has moved from the City of Riverside to the City of Los Angeles and is now in Riverside County.  Adel Abeid, Jon Walton and Beth Niblock are other examples of successful CIOs moving between multiple large jurisdictions.

In the future, however, government CIOs are going to face daunting political and ethical questions, for examples:

  • Facial Recognition. Your City (county, state) operates video cameras in public spaces.  These might include traffic cameras, security cameras or surveillance cameras in public spaces.  Your executive wants you to implement facial recognition, and build a database of individuals who attend protest marches, to find those who commit violence and crimes in order to arrest and prosecute them.   While this is a noble mission, such a database also will capture the identities of many others who are legitimately exercising their right to free speech.
  • Social Media. Your police chief or executive asks you to find and implement software to scan social media use by existing and prospective employees.   The immediate need is to make sure they are not criminals, racists, or committing other illegal acts.   But that same database could be used to determine their political affiliation and views.    It is clearly unethical to use such information when making employment (or continuation of employment) decisions about employees protected by civil service.  But is it ethical to consider such information for political (“at will”) employees or in jurisdictions without civil service?  Could such information be used to go on a “witch hunt” for employees who do not share the chief executive’s view?
  • Protected classes. Your executive is concerned about terrorism and potential hacking or damage to the City’s image by disgruntled employees.  You know that disgruntled employees are a primary cause of cyber theft and other insider threats.  Your executive asks you to use a social media monitoring tool and other technology to build a dossier on employees who potentially pose such threats, especially if they have family/friend links to known terrorist nations.
  • New technology. Your executive demands you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the City’s call center for city services.   You can implement a variety of new technologies such as chatbots, natural language processing (think “Alexa” or “Siri”) and even artificial intelligence such as IBM’s Watson.   Such technologies will eliminate dozens or hundreds of living wage jobs for people of color and those who are single parents or the sole breadwinner for their families.  While a typical response might be to offer re-training programs, the displaced workers in many cases will not have the basic education or abilities to learn the replacement high-tech jobs which will become available.

The convergence of the new “America First” policy in Washington, D. C., and the availability of a number of new technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to natural language processing to video analytics (facial and object recognition) to massive databases with associated “big data” analytics (and the threat of significant misinterpretation) will present many dilemmas for the government Chief Information Officer.

artificial-intelligence-iconEven more frightening, artificial intelligence will vastly transform the face of society and the economy of the United States over the next 20 years, as documented in a 2016 federal government report here.  Millions from jobs ranging from call centers to lawyers to accountants to everyone who drives a vehicle are at risk of elimination or significant change.  All of this technology change will be infused with politics as elected officials scramble to create jobs, save jobs or fix blame for loss of jobs.

Government CIOs work for these elected officials.  CIOs have this technology tiger by the tail.  They should pray it does not eat them alive.

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Filed under Alexa, artificial intelligence, big data, CIOs, future of technology

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