Timely access to reliable information is essential for the daily operations of municipalities. Local governments need solid data to make good decisions concerning everything from infrastructure repair to police protection.

Unfortunately, today’s municipal Chief Information Officers (CIOs) often feel that they are running flat out just to stay abreast of decision makers’ current data demands.

In part, this is to be expected in an era of tight municipal budgets. However, a 2011 Harvard Business Review article  also argues that as the demand for more information and the complexity of systems have increased, many CIOs have come to the conclusion that the “I” in their title stands for  “infrastructure.” Unfortunately, this part of the CIO’s role usually does not represent the highest and best use of his or her time and expertise. While wearing the infrastructure hat, the CIO is focused primarily on internal issues such as cost reduction and ensuring that  existing systems keep running smoothly.  Resources that could be devoted to developing improvements in data access and quality, or that could be allocated towards identifying and planning for the next disruptive technology innovation are instead consumed by day-to-day maintenance and upgrade projects.

This argument appears to be supported by current experience. While a quick perusal of a list of pending municipal strategic technology initiatives reveals many infrastructure projects such as server virtualization or OS upgrades, only a handful appear to be aimed at truly improving the collection and quality of critical data.

The infrastructure aspect of the CIO’s role is largely attributable to the continued prevalence of the client-server model in government IT. Even in smaller municipalities, this infrastructure-intensive model typically imposes on the CIO’s office responsibility for the “care and feeding” of a variety of clients and servers. This often requires the CIO to manage conflicting or inconsistent demands and priorities.

To their credit, many cities have begun to confront the “Chief Infrastructure Officer” problem. Some have responded by appointing a Chief Digital or Chief Innovation Officer. While this may provide immediate relief, for most cities, it is probably not a long-term solution. Moreover, the reassignment of some of the CIOs’ responsibilities diverts already precious resources, and it introduces a new management structure that may impact the CIO’s ability to maintain a consistently strategic focus.

Other municipal CIOs are pursuing more innovative responses to the issue. They understand that as long as their cities continue to operate exclusively in a client-server environment, infrastructure issues and projects will continue to consume an increasing share of their already strained departmental budgets. As such, they are focusing on reducing the amount of infrastructure for which their staffs are responsible. The ability to move some infrastructure to the cloud is one example of a more forward-thinking solution. Despite, it’s unclear what is best in the long term.

The only constant in IT is change, and future technical innovations not yet even in development may in time completely revolutionize the role of the CIO. For now, however, two things seem clear. The demands of end users for timely, reliable data will continue to grow, and municipal IT will continue to compete with other priorities for a portion of stagnant or shrinking municipal budgets.

Tomorrow’s successful municipal CIOs will be the ones who find and embrace new and creative ways to shift the emphasis on the “I” in “CIO” away from infrastructure and back toward information.