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The Rise of the COO in State Government

Governors are slowly realizing that they need someone to take on the things they don’t have time for.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, right, in January tapped Drew Erdmann, left, to be the state's first-ever COO.
In the summer of 2015, Oregon and other Western states suffered from brutal wildfires that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to contain and destroyed thousands of homes. At the worst moments of the crisis, the director of forestry was determined to send warnings out to citizens. The solution? He reached out to the director of transportation, and immediately Oregon’s electronic highway message boards were delivering warnings about wildfire dangers. 

This kind of interagency cooperation would have been difficult to pull off in the past. But Oregon benefited from the creation of a relatively new position in that state: chief operating officer (COO). It was created by former Gov. John Kitzhaber five years ago and has continued under current Gov. Kate Brown.

The COO takes on the tasks that governors simply don’t have the time to do, such as improving coordination between agencies. “Most of the state agency directors serve at the pleasure of the governor, but the governor doesn’t have the capacity to manage the work of agencies on a day-to-day basis,” says Matthew Shelby, communication strategist at the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. In effect, the COO serves as a convener-in-chief who can bring agency heads around a table and facilitate conversations about operating as a single entity. “There’s a growing expectation,” Shelby adds, “that we’re working together.” 

The federal government uses chief operating officers, which came into fashion as part of the effort to “reinvent” government in the 1990s. And COOs are quite common at the city level, where there tends to be a greater emphasis on service provision. But they are less visible in governors’ offices. A survey commissioned by the National Governors Association in 2015 found the position in a handful of states, including Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee and Vermont. While the New York and Vermont positions have been around for some time, in Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska and Tennessee, the position is relatively new. But it seems to be spreading: In January, incoming Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens tapped Drew Erdmann, a partner at McKinsey, as that state’s first-ever COO.   

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam in 2013 appointed longtime IBM executive Greg Adams to be the state’s first COO. The position stemmed from a need that Haslam and his staff perceived in his first two years in office. There were no advisers whose role naturally put them in a position to own cross-department operational efficiencies, such as multiple call centers, eligibility systems or IT functions that could potentially be shared. “It wasn’t a natural fit for anyone,” says Adams. Lately Adams has been getting a flow of requests from other states that are eager to hear how the position works. “It’s kind of buzzing,” he says.

When National Governors Association researchers examined four of the states with positive COO track records, they found a handful of factors that COOs thought were important to their success. These included the governor’s commitment to operations, defined roles and responsibilities, an emphasis on performance management, and an enterprise-wide perspective.

What’s the difference between COOs and the more common position of chief administrative officer? Of course, roles and responsibilities always vary, depending on the state, the governor’s leadership style and the way different management roles have evolved over time. But generally, COOs are likely to be less involved than chief administrative officers in back-office operations and are more directly involved with the governor, the governor’s staff and enterprise-wide issues. 

In Oregon, for example, agency directors may have individual conversations with the governor and her top policy officials, fundamentally focusing on the issues that impact their own agencies. But then every two weeks, directors from the state’s largest agencies come and sit around a table with COO Katy Coba to discuss the various operational issues that affect most or all of them. 

In Tennessee, the COO position provides a focus on the consistency of state practices across 23 separate departments, including the way the state engages in planning, goal setting and paying for performance. Every month, in addition to the governor’s monthly cabinet meeting, Adams also meets with the state’s 23 commissioners to talk about operational issues and with the three commissioners who deal with internal services -- human resources, finance, and administration and general services. 

One of the biggest pluses of having a chief operating officer is that it means the governor has someone with him in the “middle of gnarly operational issues, helping to free him up to drive dramatic policy issues,” Adams says.

It’s exactly those gnarly operational issues that can easily destroy a governor’s legacy. While governors are judged initially on their policy priorities, their final legacy stems from their success in implementing their priorities and in dealing with the many operational challenges that begin to surface as soon as they take office. 

“As I look back on several hundred governors,” says Barry Van Lare, who has held multiple high-level positions in both the state and federal governments, including a number with the National Governors Association, “their legacy depends not so much on their policy objectives as on whether something went wrong from an administrative point of view during their administration and whether they were able to handle it.”

Says Oregon’s Coba, “You can have the best policy in the world, but if you can’t implement that, you’ve failed.”

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