The Elusive Long-Timer

David Litchliter is an unusual creature in state government - a longtime chief information officer, whose 13 years on the job make him as rare as...
by | August 31, 2007

David Litchliter is an unusual creature in state government - a longtime chief information officer, whose 13 years on the job make him as rare as an endangered Mississippi gopher frog.

Litchliter's time as executive director of Mississippi's Information Technology Services Department is six times longer than that of the average state CIO, spanning the administrations of three governors - two Republicans and a Democrat. And while he serves at the will of a state technology board, he shows no signs of slowing down.

When the National Association of State Chief Information Officers meets in Tucson at the end of this month, Litchliter, 53, will be the group's longest-serving member - one of only five state tech leaders who have been on the job for more than five years. About half of the others have been CIOs for less than two years, and more than a dozen have been in their posts only since the start of this year. That means the annual turnover in top state technology jobs is higher than that of Starbucks store managers, which runs about 20 percent.

Turnover is not inherently bad. New tech chiefs bring fresh perspectives - from different levels of government, academia or the corporate world. But historic perspectives and continuity are valuable too, even in the fast-changing world of technology.

The lure of private-sector salaries helps drive the frequent leadership changes. In the past year, some of Litchliter's former counterparts landed senior jobs at such big companies as Microsoft, Unisys and SAP. Politics also plays a part. The increasing importance of technology in government operations has turned many senior tech jobs into high-profile, even cabinet-level posts, with tenures set by the political calendar. In fact, all of the new or acting CIOs in the first half of 2007 were in states that held gubernatorial elections last year.

Litchliter and his staff are not immune to political forces in Mississippi, where big changes are likely in 2008, no matter how this year's gubernatorial race turns out. Control of the Senate is up for grabs, and there is a close contest to replace the state's term-limited lieutenant governor, whose power to make Senate committee assignments, regardless of which party is in the majority, gives that office unusual authority. "It could be a new world in a year," Litchliter says.

The CIO attributes his longevity largely to the state's technology governance model, which somewhat insulates his team from those kinds of changes. The board that oversees Litchliter's independent executive agency is composed of five technology professionals from outside state government. The board is appointed by the governor but also approved by the Senate; members serve staggered five-year terms. The board, not the governor, selects the CIO, again with the Senate's approval. And there is a history of governors reappointing some board members, even those chosen by previous governors, regardless of party.

This structure fosters continuity in leadership for strategy and investments. It also means the technology team answers to many demanding customers, not just the governor. In fact, Litchliter's department operates entirely on revenue it generates for supporting other offices and agencies.

Maintaining strong customer relationships with the governor, agency heads and lawmakers helps ensure the interests of the state and the needs of his office are reflected in state budgets and appropriations. Litchliter's staff of 150 people, for instance, is roughly the same size it was when he took over as CIO. "Mississippi is always focused on how to get by on less money because we have less money," he says.

The CIO does not seem to have grown tired of any of this or of his department's lengthy to-do list, which includes an interdepartmental enterprise resource planning system and a Web-based "clearinghouse" of geographic information system data for state and local officials. The state also just awarded a contract for a new interoperable statewide emergency communications system for law enforcement and first responders - a huge priority since the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Litchliter also keeps busy serving on a health information technology taskforce, overseeing the state's shared technology infrastructure and planning his staff's move to a new office and data center, set to open two years from now.

If Litchliter is still CIO then, he will have been on the job 15 years. And that's not unthinkable. After all, his predecessor was in charge of the state's technology operations for 17 years. That's continuity.