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How to Survive in the Public Sector

How to Survive in the Public Sector

As the former CIO of one US state learned, it’s not easy staying on top of the political bull.

In graduate school, they teach you that the principles of sound information systems management are, like the laws of physics, valid throughout the universe. My experiences in the private sector seemed to bear this out, as time after time the lessons learned in one assignment proved useful in the next. So when I was hired to develop and implement a formal IT program for the executive branch of government of a large western state in the US, it seemed reasonable to infer that my 17 years in IT management would provide solid footing for doing some truly groundbreaking work in state government. Silly me.

State government turned out to be unlike anything I had done before. Things were done according to unfathomable unwritten rules I didn’t understand, and my intuitive problem-solving “compass” kept getting me lost. I soon realised that leading IT reform in state government requires decidedly different characteristics from those found in the private sector. So for the benefit of those considering a job in the public sector, here are some differences you should know about beforehand.

Organisational turbulence can be high in state government, especially in the wake of an election. I was hired by one governor and three months later found myself working for another — one who disliked and distrusted his predecessor and valued information technology very little. Several agency directors had participated in my hiring and gave me verbal assurances of support and assistance. Within a few weeks of inauguration day, however, all but one were gone, and I found myself without a constituency. The merits of my proposed reforms were rock solid: a process for converging towards a single enterprise architecture, a mechanism for sound financial controls, a structure for correcting the vendor abuses of the past, estimated cost savings of $US70 million per biennial budget period and so on. The program was designed to skyrocket Wyoming’s Digital State ranking from dead last to middle of the pack in about 18 months, and give the governor and the legislature unprecedented visibility into IT activity and spending. Even so, the new governor had no interest in my reforms, and for several months I wandered around like a rain-soaked orphan, looking for someone to adopt me.

Grandstanders Need Not Apply

To sell my program, I knew I would have to build as broad a support base as I could outside the statehouse. I put together a high-octane presentation, driving home the business advantages of the program. I then got in front of as many decision-makers as I could to pitch it. The cabinet-level agency directors proved to be a receptive audience and a good source of support to counterbalance the absence of the governor’s sponsorship.

In the private sector, the merits of a compelling idea or the support of a powerful sponsor are sometimes all that are required to keep an initiative alive. But in state government, compromise is the fuel of forward motion. For me, the ultimate example of this was how the Wyoming’s executive branch agencies came together to craft a governance structure to manage the state’s IT program. IT activity had, for many years, been almost completely decentralised, and initiatives were planned by the various agencies. Collaboration was rare, and redundancy of staffing and platforms, duplication of development efforts, and unmanaged spending were apparent everywhere. Until the office of the CIO began pulling the numbers together, no one in Wyoming imagined that the state had more than 900 people working full-time in IT and that total budget authority for IT-related items exceeded $US200 million per two-year budget cycle — an eye-opener in a state with a total biennial budget of only $US4.3 billion.

Bit by bit, we began collaboratively constructing a governance model that accommodated the priorities of all participating parties. In the end, the governance structure that took shape was a “federated” arrangement that shared authority between the CIO and a body representing the executive branch agencies. This was a first for Wyoming, and compromise was the principle that made it possible.

While corporations like to be thought of as nimble on their feet, state governments are fine-grinding and don’t have the financial flexibility for quick changes. Budget planning begins at least a year in advance of spending — usually more — and some budget cycles are two years in duration. Moreover, with legislatures calling the shots, nothing is certain. Some initiatives can simmer year after year, and eventually pass in the third or fourth year. One staffer told me that a bill had been introduced in Wyoming’s 2003 legislative session merely to gain momentum — to “clear the stubble”, as he put it — for reintroduction the next year. Hired in September 2002, I was distressed to learn that the first opportunity for submitting enabling legislation for the new IT management program (to formally establish the required organisations and provide funding) would be in 2004! Not exactly nimble.

If you are a dogged kind of manager who doesn’t mind the long haul, state government may be a fit. If pulse-pounding impatience characterises your management style, you will probably give yourself a heart attack.

Politics Rule

Everything in state government is political, tightly wrapped in sticky issues of influence and immovably grounded in “turf”. I have lost track of the number of meetings that started off with a caveat such as, “we need to take off our agency hats and put on our Wyoming hats”. That said, the meeting would then be spent in incessant and elegant manoeuvring for turf. I actually have been greatly encouraged to find a number of managers, mostly technologists, willing to suspend their personal loyalties in pursuit of the greater good. But it would be naive to forget that those individuals are exceptions to the rule.

Sometimes, in spite of all you do, politics prevail. Our laboriously crafted IT program, for example, was swapped away in a horse trade among elected officials in order to keep the peace in the statehouse. The elected state auditor saw the entire IT reform effort as an incursion into his turf and began manoeuvring for its derailment. The governor who hired me provided strong political cover to get the program started, but the new governor was not so astute. He finally gave in to the auditor’s incessant lobbying and surrendered control of the executive branch IT program to him. Again at the auditor’s insistence, the governor fired me and appointed a replacement of the auditor’s choosing — a career accountant who would preserve the status quo and ensure the plans for IT spending accountability would never see the light of day. Potential state CIOs need to decide whether they would flourish in this highly political environment or be driven nuts by it.

Think you’re up to it? At least now, you can go into it with your eyes open. I wish I had.

William Campbell was Wyoming’s first CIO and “cleared the stubble” for those to follow. He now works for the Technical Services Organization, the systems development arm of the US Defense Finance and Accounting Service

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