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Finding a new HHS CIO means navigating tricky waters

When HHS launches its CIO search, it will look for someone who is both politically savvy and technically skilled, an executive search consultant said.

When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services begins looking for a new CIO, the process promises to be a difficult and distinct one, according to Steve Nilsen, co-founder and general manager of C-suite executive search firm CastLight Search.

Last month, HHS CIO Jose Arrieta abruptly resigned from the position he'd held for 16 months and from his more than 15 years in federal service. He was the second technology officer to leave HHS since July. HHS named principal deputy CIO Perryn Ashmore as acting CIO and has not announced whether it has begun a formal search process.

Finding Arrieta's replacement will be a tricky journey for HHS, Nilsen said. The department will have to navigate what has become a highly politicized position as tension between HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grew over the reporting of COVID-19 data. In July, hospital-reported data became available on the HHS Protect data system, replacing a CDC system. Arrieta was behind the launch of HHS Protect, a secure platform for collecting and analyzing COVID-19 data.

In this Q&A, Nilsen talks about the legacy Arrieta leaves behind. He also describes what HHS could be looking for in a new CIO, which not only includes a strong list of skills, but also the ability to be both politically savvy and apolitical at the same time.

Jose Arrieta was in the role of HHS CIO for a little more than a year. What was he able to accomplish in that time?

Steve NilsenSteve Nilsen

Steve Nilsen: I think Arrieta did a phenomenal job. It is the biggest CIO job in the land, and he's a career-long public servant. He comes from a procurement, supply chain background and, initially, didn't look like the guy that would be the most dynamic and break new ground. But he showed that you can move fast and you can get things done within the department. He had some tremendous accomplishments in the short time he was there in terms of implementing blockchain in the procurement process, the HHS Protect platform that he stood up very quickly.

Due to the pandemic, a lot of hiring is taking place virtually. Would that impact HHS' CIO search?

Nilsen: It can be done. I've placed corporate leaders during this COVID time without any physical face-to-face interaction. So it's possible. Now, the federal government is perhaps a little bit more resistant to making a move like that. [The HHS CIO position] is a very high level, so it would be another obstacle to deal with, but it is possible. It's being done every day across the search industry for sure. We've all gone virtual.

What experience would HHS be looking for in its next CIO?

Nilsen: The challenge here is, of course, that so much [of the role] has been politicized. So, you're looking for somebody with political savvy because this is a political job whether you like it or not. …. [Yet,] I think at this point, as surprising as this may sound, [it's] somebody who also has the ability to work across the aisle, somebody who's not viewed as a political appointee. Skillset is priority No. 1, but second is being apolitical. I think that's important for continuity. However the elections go, whoever comes in needs to stay onboard.

In terms of background, Arrieta showed that strong focus on procurement and supply chain can save a lot of money and increase efficiency. You don't necessarily need to have been a CIO for that -- Arrieta had not held the title [previously], but he has done the job. I also think somebody who is strong in AI, someone who can continue the blockchain development and somebody who understands cloud and security will be [given] high priority going forward. … The way the role is written, it's very operational, it's not very strategic. But I think Arrieta took that operational role and turned it into something strategic, which is really an accomplishment. A diversity candidate would also be spectacular. I think it should be a priority and there is tremendous talent out there, so I hope the search takes that into account.

What should candidates be thinking about if they're considering taking on something like the HHS CIO role?

Nilsen: As I tell all my C-level candidates, due diligence goes both ways. You don't want to take a position just because it's an exciting and big role; you want to take it because you think you can be successful. That due diligence needs to happen, especially in this case, given that it's a federal government role, it has been somewhat politicized, it's an election year and we have a pandemic going on. There's a lot more than being the world's best CIO that you need to consider going into this role and whether you're the right person to succeed in the role.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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