Public Workforce

Topside Turnover

When Otto Doll shows up at NASCIO meetings, the South Dakota CIO is often treated with a subtle degree of deference -- the kind you...
by | March 31, 2007
 

When Otto Doll shows up at NASCIO meetings, the South Dakota CIO is often treated with a subtle degree of deference -- the kind you might show to the aged patriarch of a large family. Except that Doll isn't old -- he's only 54. What he is, though, is a long-timer: Doll has been the chief information officer in South Dakota for 11 years. That's a lengthy tenure for any high-level state official, but it's downright remarkable for a CIO. State CIOs are averaging 26 months in their jobs, which is why state and local chief information officers joke that CIO stands for Career Is Over.

"It should be unsettling when the CIO turns over at that rate," says former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer, who is now with the Environmental Systems Research Institute. It is certainly unsettling to CIOs, who have a lot of theories about why they are at risk. But it is also of concern to other state and local officials. The question for them is not only why the turnover rate is high but what effect that has on the way a state or locality manages its IT programs, to say nothing of the way it manages various agencies, departments and programs that depend on an up-to-date IT backbone to function.

The Revolving Door

At least some of the CIO turnover is occurring for the same reasons other upper-level officials move on -- an administration or the party in power changes. CIOs, however, have been especially vulnerable. Technology chiefs have to explain to a new governor the merits of complex and very technical projects -- the success attained and the history that shows why the technology choices were not a partisan matter.

Then there is the question of their resumes. Increasingly, high-level officials ranging from health commissioner to head of the water authority are recruited from the private sector, but nowhere is this more true than for CIOs. Often they enter government as a favor to the governor or as a public-spirited, I-can-make-a-difference challenge. They may not intend to stay long, but their stint may be even shorter than they anticipated. It is not uncommon for there to be a clash of styles.

Industry people are used to making changes aggressively, with a latitude for imposing their ideas that doesn't exist in state government. And, they may feel restricted by unwieldy procurement and other processes. "In a lot of cases, they just get frustrated," says Tom Jarrett, Delaware's CIO. "They say, 'Who needs this?' "

It's not as if the salary is a temptation to stay. CIOs from the private sector usually take a large cut in pay, and now they must deal with agency heads who may feel threatened by their actions. The bulk of their job involves working with the operations of other state agencies and putting in place technology systems that can support the agencies' services. But that means changing the way an agency goes about its business, and there is likely to be a good deal of chafing between agency executives and CIOs. When he first got involved with state government, Steve Kolodney, the former CIO of Washington state, says he was warned by a mentor: "You're either the CIO or you hate the CIO."

"I don't see where the staying power is," says Doll. "What's the drive to keep these people there if they came out of private industry?" Doll did, in fact, come from a job with a company, but he says he was sold on the benefits of public service. He doesn't see the same fire in many of the other CIOs.

But the reasons for the turnover go deeper. They may turn on issues inherent in the technology field itself. Technology is expensive, volatile, complex and politically risky. The rate of project failure is high, not surprising in such a new discipline. With a mature industry such as construction, the nails, tools and steel that go into building a project are standardized and commercially available. With technology, the bits and pieces for building, say, an enterprise payroll system, are still new and evolving. It is much less likely that there are standard components or that components haven't suddenly changed. Rick Webb, a former North Carolina CIO, says he likes to ask CIOs, "How does it feel to be riding on the end of a rocket?"

Richard Thompson, Maine's CIO, served as head of procurement before moving into the CIO position. The differences couldn't be greater, he says. The rules of procurement are very stable. The environment doesn't change a great deal, even though the things that are purchased might. But with IT "you can pretty much anticipate that the technology and services you provide are going to grow 100 percent to 200 percent in a very short period of time," making it difficult to predict what's coming next.

All of which helps explain the high rate of failure of IT projects. And when that happens, it seldom can be explained well in a political context, says Kolodney, who is now in the private sector with CGI.

Meanwhile, frequent turnover is disruptive to any agency or function, but it is particularly disturbing in IT since IT systems undergird so many governmental services. And it's a source of concern right now as the nature of the CIO job evolves from one of taking care of the plumbing -- managing data and equipment -- to being on the front lines of strategic planning and state policy. "The constant churn does have an effect on states' ability to move forward in a reasonable way," says Doug Robinson, executive director of NASCIO.

Projects that have been underway for a few years may be turned in another direction by a new leader or come to a screeching halt. Many technology systems can take several years to mature and need a steady hand at the helm. Making the organizational and structural changes and transforming government operations or instituting innovations to get the most out of a new IT system takes time. If CIO turnover is too rapid, those changes are not institutionalized. "In some cases, there's a real yo-yo effect going on," Robinson says. "There's not enough time to make changes stick." NASCIO is trying to promote business disciplines such as enterprise architecture and project management that transcend individual appointments.

Despite the hardship of rapid turnover for governments and CIOs, technology leaders with short tenures still can move the organization forward. Progress might be establishing a project management office or rules for technology. "People may flame out, but these rules and structure help institutionally," says Aldona Valicenti, former CIO of Kentucky.

Of course, state governments have learned to function through change, since the top level gets swept out periodically, sometimes after just four years. "State government has learned how to exist with having its head cut off," says Doll. "It regenerates each time." But it can be costly when IT projects are at stake.

Survival Guide

For CIOs, there are several steps to take to avoid a sudden departure. Political skills and friends in high places help, as does taking the time to understand policy and budget processes, sticking with the chief executive's agenda and developing good relationships with legislators. Marketing skills can be put to use to educate legislators, users and others on the value of technology.

An ability to work collaboratively is useful, too. "You can't go around saying, 'I'm responsible. I'm in charge,' " says Jon Fullinwider, CIO of Los Angeles County. "People will circumvent you in a heartbeat."

Fullinwider says he learned a lesson about attitude when he showed up for his first county job in 1988. It was as San Diego's CIO. He admits that when he accepted the offer he was feeling a bit superior. After all, he had been project manager for launch support on the NASA Space Shuttle. His ego entered his office ahead of him. "I thought I was God's gift to technology and that everyone else in government was inept. Why else are they in government?" he says. He was disabused of that notion, but it took six months and he was not a happy camper during those months.

Fullinwider also learned how to keep resistance from other agencies -- and thus their desire to see you fail -- at bay. Borrowing a page from management basics, he makes it a policy to be inclusive. That means demonstrating to people in agencies the value in the technology system he is proposing and making people feel that they're part of the solution.

South Dakota's Doll, who has survived in office despite two changes in governors, assigns his longevity in part to being flexible to philosophical changes and new people. He concedes, however, that he has the advantage of working in a small state and running the state's largest IT organization. It's simply not that easy to find someone in South Dakota who has managed in such a large IT environment.

CIOs who seem to have a strong hold on their jobs -- such as Michigan's Teri Takai (four years), Delaware's Tom Jarrett (five-and-a-half years) and Arizona's Chris Cummiskey (four years) -- have good working relationships with their governors. Their staying power is enhanced by their abilities to focus on the governor's policy goals as they initiate and follow through on projects. Unfortunately for them, in the end, that strong alignment with the administration pretty much guarantees a good-bye when the governor goes.

Most CIOs recognize the importance of having the governor's support. Former Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina, after being shown that the state was graded with a "C" on technology in relation to the other 49 states, told his then-CIO Webb, "We're going to dot-com North Carolina." That kind of gubernatorial interest and energy can buoy technology advances in a state and help keep a CIO in office. "It helps to step up and be part of the parade that drives your agenda," says Webb, who is now with Accenture.

When it comes to resolving turf fights between the CIO and state agencies, many governors don't care to get involved. CIOs new to government get overwhelmed by government organizational and process issues, notes John Kost, the Michigan CIO when John Engler was governor of the state. Engler helped Kost cut through some of the bureaucratic issues that can contribute to a CIO's early departure. "Often the CIO will come in with grand ambitions," Kost says, "but unless the organization and leadership of government are shifting direction at the same speed and down the same path as the CIO, the CIO won't last long." A hot shot who comes in from the private sector and tries to go it alone to fix problems will "quickly run out of artillery cover," says Kost, who is now with Gartner.

State Steps

Beyond a governor's backing, there are ways a state or locality can help cut down on CIO turnover -- or at least mitigate the bad effects. Mississippi CIO David Litchliter, in office for 13 years, is now serving under his third governor. Two were Republicans, one a Democrat. The winds of administration change don't blow his way: He reports to a five-member board, one of whose members is appointed each year for a five-year term.

On the governance front, there is the question of whether the CIO office should be in the cabinet. As policy advisers, it makes sense for CIOs to be there and that has been the trend as the job description has evolved from "plumber" to planner. When CIOs are cabinet members, they report directly to the governor and are the political equal of the heads of other departments -- even though they have little authority over those departments.

There has been a move, of late, to move the CIO position back to the agency level, within such a unit as general services or finance. That would insulate them in terms of job safety. But if they don't report directly to the governor, they tend to have a harder time being heard, being effective and to some degree, being respected. NASCIO has spent years pushing for CIOs to sit at the governor's table as cabinet members. "Is it still a smart move?" ponders Arizona CIO Chris Cummiskey. "It's an interesting question."

These days, technology chiefs are contending with yet another change, and that's the definition of a successful CIO. The first round of CIOs had to cajole and convince skeptical legislators and executive leaders of the great possibilities for government programs to be delivered via technology, of the importance of the Internet. In the early years, there was a certain kind of leader in CIO positions -- adventuresome, self-assured, opinion-directed, Kolodney suggests. He cites as examples Kost in Michigan, Larry Singer in Georgia, Richard Varn in Iowa and Larry Olson who served in Pennsylvania and Texas.

Today's governors no longer need to be convinced of the basic benefits of technology. Now CIOs have to concentrate on making sure technology is robust and being used effectively. "It attracts," says Kolodney, "a different kind of person." And for better or worse, that may be part of the problem.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Public Workforce