The Chief Operating Officer That Every State Needs

As the private sector has shown, it's a way to produce effective management and efficiency across a complex enterprise.
January 20, 2017
By John M. Bernard  |  Contributor
Chairman and founder of Portland, Ore.-based Mass Ingenuity

As state governments respond to increasing demands for accountability and efficiency, a new job title is popping up in the capitol. More and more, governors are drawing on the experience of the private sector and creating the position of chief operating officer (COO). For advocates of effectiveness in government, it's a trend that ought to be welcome.

So what can a COO do to justify adding another layer of executive management?

By statute in most states, agency secretaries, directors or commissioners report to the governor. But the practical reality is that the oversight of dozens of agencies, boards and commissions is delegated most commonly to the governor's chief of staff. Typically, though, a chief of staff's expertise is primarily political: policy formation and oversight, legislation, negotiation, constituency development and communications.

And while the title of state chief administrator has been around for many years, that role is commonly limited to overseeing shared services and oversight functions of human resources, centralized information technology, procurement, budget and planning, and facilities.

What's needed is a position with a clear focus on management and efficiency across the governmental enterprise -- not only overseeing daily operations but also ensuring that the governor's policies are executed, advocating for improved customer service, making sure that departments work together, targeting unnecessary rules and regulations, troubleshooting problems, and figuring out how people, processes and technology can be leveraged to deliver better results. That's where the COO comes in.

Tennessee COO Greg Adams, who came to the job after a 36-year career at IBM, tells the story of Gov. Bill Haslam's introduction of him and the chief operating officer role to the state's cabinet in 2013: "He pulled the 23 commissioners in a room and said, 'Let me tell you about Greg. Let me tell you about his background and what I have asked him to do. He's going to be your first interface on operational issues. And so the first thing I am going to ask you if you come to me with any operational issues is what does Greg want to do?'"

Arizona COO Henry Darwin, who was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2015, came to the role after catching the governor's eye because of the results achieved by the state's Department of Environmental Quality under Darwin's leadership. Darwin believes that his most critical role is managing performance across the executive branch. Agency leaders traditionally have set their own goals and defined their own means to manage performance. "I really believe that if a state is going to establish a COO position it should either have a management system in place that's across the state or it should make developing it as one of the top -- if not the first -- priorities," says Darwin.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo "wanted a chief operating officer who was able to manage the whole cabinet and to see across the all the different silos of state government," says Eric Beane, who was appointed by Raimondo last year and is drawing on his experiences as deputy chief of staff for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Before appointing Beane, Raimondo sought advice on how to structure the role from Tennessee Gov. Haslam, who created his state's COO position in 2013, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Some governors have the COO report directly to them, while others have the new role report to the chief of staff. In cabinet meetings, Beane sits to the right of Raimondo while Chief of Staff Brett Smiley sits to her left.

Like Adams and Darwin, Beane saw the need to establish subject-matter sub-cabinet groups to work on some of the more complex challenges. "Rather than having a conversation with the full 28 cabinet members," Beane says, "we were able to pick the five or six that had the most integral role to play in the area we want to focus on to drive improvement."

Darwin, to accomplish much the same thing, created "goal councils" to concentrate on the governor's major priorities, including education, economic development, health, environment and public safety. "We are focusing on such complex issues as opioid abuse, recidivism, workforce development and working together to save money for our taxpayers," Darwin explains.

As an example of the value of collaboration, Beane points to recent sub-cabinet work to leverage a Rhode Island first: its status as of this past December as the first state with offshore wind power production. "We pulled together a sub-cabinet meeting for a strategy session to discuss how to capitalize on this opportunity to promote economic development and create high-wage jobs working on projects and in the associated supply chain," says Beane. "We were able to coordinate and collaborate in a way that would've been difficult to do without the convening power of the governor and the COO on her behalf."

It's just that kind of experience that would seem to make the case for having a COO in every governor's C-suite. A state government is a complex enterprise, one that clearly could benefit from a new standard of effective management.