Three years ago, when Texas Monthly Biz magazine named Carolyn Purcell among “The Most Powerful Texans in High Tech,” she professed to be shocked. “I didn’t think my hair was big enough to be powerful in Texas,” she said.
Jesting aside, it’s clearly her management skills that have enabled Purcell, the recently retired chief information officer and chief executive officer of the state’s Department of Information Resources, to exert significant influence over the evolution of electronic government, both in Texas and nationally. During her nine years as the state’s top technology official, Purcell improved the state’s record for delivering projects on time and on budget, connected state services to citizens through a user-friendly Web portal, focused on security before it popped up on the national agenda, and developed a money-saving procurement program.
Purcell, 55, accomplished these objectives not with bombast or edicts but rather with persuasion and grace. Almost anyone who’s worked with Purcell agrees that one of her talents is the ability to get people to collaborate. In the Lone Star State, it’s an essential skill for the CIO. That’s because the executive office is structurally weak; the Texas governor writes only a policy budget, and the CIO has no authority to command and control on statewide initiatives or standards.
That meant that if Purcell couldn’t sway agencies to comply with statewide programs, she had to convince the legislature of the need for action. She worked closely with lawmakers during their biennial sessions, attending as many as 100 days out of a 140-day session, to push for technology statutes and funding. “When you have no stick, you learn to use a carrot better,” says Ed Serna, chief operating officer.
Purcell excelled at bringing parties together and getting them to work cooperatively in the decision-making process. By all accounts, her leadership style was open, inclusive and empowering, and she demonstrated a genuine interest in others’ positions. But when she needed to, she made the tough choices. Purcell helped raise the awareness of the value of technology and shepherded many successful IT projects from conception to completion. During Year 2000 preparations, the Information Resources Department discovered a porous technology environment. With some surplus Y2K funding, the department did a security assessment in early 2001 and started to plug holes. When terrorism-related security concerns arose after the 9/11 attacks, the state government already was well positioned to protect its electronic assets. The legislature even agreed to fund a security office to assist the efforts.
TexasOnline, the state’s Web portal, which also includes local governments, was started without a huge state investment. A private company covered the upfront capital costs and is paid back through convenience fees charged to citizens for transactions such as renewing car registrations or hunting or fishing licenses. Citizens were “liberated” from having to visit government offices. However, one drawback, Purcell says, was that the legislature began to think of her as a magician who could get things done for “free.”
Even if Purcell doesn’t actually get things done for free, she has learned to do them as cheaply as possible. One of her initiatives was a volume-purchasing program that has saved the state millions of dollars. When it started in fiscal 1994, state agencies were spending between $20 million and $50 million on hardware, software and technical services through the program. By fiscal 2003, their combined spending topped half a billion dollars. “It took a lot of care and feeding to grow it up,” Purcell says. The extra savings from the volume purchases are passed on to local governments and school districts, giving legislators something to boast about during their reelection campaigns.
But that sort of nurturing is what Purcell is known for in public-sector tech circles. She served as president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and as chairperson of the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council. Stuart McKee, Washington State’s CIO, says one of the first calls he received when he started his job was from Purcell, who welcomed him and offered her assistance. “She is always exceptionally gracious and commands a great deal of respect,” McKee says.
— Ellen Perlman
Photos by Bob Daemmrich