Putting Business First

CIOs from the private sector bring a refreshing mindset to their government jobs, and vice versa.
July 2002
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

If a governor wants a state technology agency to run like a business, who better to run it than a business executive? Last year, Delaware hired Thomas Jarrett, an executive with a 28-year career at Verizon, to structure a new Department of Technology and Information and run it like a private enterprise, something he is rather familiar with. "The only way I could come into something like this," he says, "is to run it with a business mindset rather than that of someone who's been in government for 30 years."

Jarrett is filling all the positions in the new department with employees who are outside the cumbersome civil service process. "It's never been done before," he says. "I get to come in and build an organization from scratch with all new people."

The Delaware CIO is often asked why he gave up a job in the private sector to become a state official. If he has a snappy answer, perhaps he could share it with the six or so other recently hired CIOs who all have left the private sector for state CIO positions. They certainly don't do it for the money. Several were independently wealthy by the time they accepted their state jobs.

Most say they relish the challenge of working in government. Phillip Windley, Utah's CIO and former vice president of Excite@Home, says he chose the job for the opportunity to work for Governor Mike Leavitt. Judy Teller, New Jersey's CIO, is a former senior manager and partner at Accenture who signed on with the state because she has always viewed working for the public sector as "the highest and best calling."

Other reasons are more personal. Montana's Brian Wolf, who was a telecommunications and technology manager for Basin Electric Power Cooperative in North Dakota, took the CIO position for the chance to live in Montana, a state he learned to love from previous visits. Stuart McKee, Washington's new CIO, had family to consider. He was based in Seattle while working for the Walt Disney Co. and did not want to uproot his family to move to Disney headquarters in Los Angeles. By taking the helm in Washington, McKee essentially became head of the fifth largest technology company in the state, and a telephone company and data center that are in the top five in the state.

The new CIOs also point to the challenge of bringing business-like change to government. New Jersey's Teller plans to consolidate operations and discard purchasing practices that "no private company would tolerate." For instance, the state was spending more than $1.5 million a year because employees were using 800 numbers, even when dialing from inside the state, to check e-mail and surf the Internet. Using a local number is free. "I started making a list," Teller says. "What are the private-sector practices to implement in the first four months?"

Although the recent trend is toward businesspeople taking over states' technology departments--two other business executives-turned- state-CIOs are Jacques Passino in Michigan and George Newstrom in Virginia--the choice is not always the best one. There is a lot to be said for state CIOs who have intimate knowledge of the workings of government. Business executives can get flummoxed by the bureaucracy. "It's a difficult transition," says Windley. "I've been frustrated a number of times. Things work very differently."

He believes it's important that a governor has his or her eye on a goal when bringing a private-sector person into the fold. If a governor wants to drive significant change and is willing to invest his or her time and stature to make it happen, a businessperson could be the right choice. If the governor wants to "put something on the stove and let it cook, someone within the state might do a better job than someone from the outside," Windley says. "There's ramp-up time for an outsider."

McKee counters that any new CIO, whether in government or in a large company, has to learn the unique culture of an organization. But serving in the public sector, he has discovered a new-found enthusiasm. He gets to "play Switzerland," bringing disparate agencies with data together. In the area of criminal justice, "if we're successful, we keep the bad guys off the street. How cool is that?"

He also professes to be impressed by the culture of competitive business he found among his new colleagues, a culture he considers more efficient and effective than anything he had at Disney. "It's refreshing," he says. "Some businesses need to run like this government."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com