When to hire a chief digital officer for your agency

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The government C-level executive suite may be short a team member – private sector groups such as Forbes, CVS and Starbucks have added a chief digital officer to their executive team. Should government follow suit?

Responsible for breaking down organizational silos and creating a vision and strategy for social and digital technologies, the CDO could help agencies develop a more robust online presence.

In the last two years, the private sector has seen a notable increase in CDOs, especially in Fortune 1000 firms, according to Tuck Rickards of Russell Reynolds’ Digital Transformation Practice. Gartner says this trend will continue, stating 25 percent of organizations will have a CDO by 2015.

Similarly, educational institutions are embracing the CDO. Harvard University hired Perry Hewitt in 2011 to, as she described on her blog, provide a “comprehensive digital strategy to meet needs in communications, engagement, and transaction, as well as exploring ways that organizations transform through and for their digital constituencies.” Columbia University brought on Sree Sreenivasan in 2012 to provide leadership and strategy on the digital delivery of education.

With so many important groups embracing the CDO, government agencies need to decide whether adding another executive will truly benefit their mission. It is not a matter of if an agency needs a digital strategy – the Digital Government Strategy and open data policy push agencies to rethink how they deliver services and information to citizens, requiring government websites to collect qualitative and quantitative data about users to improve their online experience. Instead, agencies need to think about how they will create and implement their digital strategy and if their senior leadership possesses the vision and capacity to render services comparable to private sector.

A recent Forbes article may be instructive in this delineation.

For agencies lacking a digital strategy or slow to embrace the power of social and digital technologies, a CDO may add value. Martin Gill’s article points out Blockbuster, slow to move into the digital age, could have used a CDO. In this case, a CDO would have – hopefully – possessed the foresight to move Blockbuster’s content to an online platform capable of competing with companies like Netflix and Hulu.

Amazon, on the other hand, would not benefit similarly. This is because Amazon was, as Gill says, “born digital.” Senior executives in the dot-com industry have a digital strategy that is part and parcel of their overall business strategy. CEOs perform the functions of a CDO because a social media and digital strategy is the primary service provided.

Government agencies can benefit from bringing on a CDO if they are behind in the game, so to speak. CDOs can help agencies lacking true social media and digital leadership implement a digital strategy and thereby comply with recent digital mandates. For many agencies though, it may be enough to have executive leadership who see a digital strategy as synonymous with the larger agency strategy.

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Digital Government Strategy, Harvard University, Open Data policy
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