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The Inside Story

The new generation of state IT leaders who came from the private sector are struggling with the culture of government.

Being the top technology honcho in the states is a tough job these days. It's even tougher if you're the new kid on the block with no previous state government experience. Yet, a surprisingly large number of state IT leaders find themselves in exactly this situation. You might call them the post-bubble class of technology leaders.

A year ago, under the sponsorship of NASCIO, I co-authored a transition handbook for this new generation of leaders based on advice and wisdom from their predecessors. In following up on this, I set out to interview a representative sample of the post-bubble group to see how things were going.

In wide-ranging talks I had with seven top IT officials--John Hansen in Colorado, Teresa Takai in Michigan, George Newstrom in Virginia, Kim Bahrami in Florida, Carolyn Walton in Arkansas, Robert Anderson in New Hampshire and Arthur Stephens in Pennsylvania--I heard a lot about life "inside the glass house" and want to share their observations with you.

They all hope to bring the best of the private sector to the states, have an enthusiasm for the mission, are determined to make a difference--particularly by changing the way things are done--and are eager to learn how state government works. Nonetheless, to a person, they are all struggling with the culture of state government and how different it is from the private sector.

For starters, they are surprised that state government is driven by process and not by results. All agreed that this focus on process, along with numerous checks and balances, translates into an inherent cautiousness and unwillingness to take acceptable risks to achieve results, especially with so much public visibility when failures occur. One person sized it up with the observation that "a bottom line-focused person hits the wall pretty quickly."

Many are a little disheartened to discover that the management practices they had used in the private sector to produce results-- rewarding top performers with financial bonuses and incentives, for example--aren't available to them. Moreover, making even a small change in organization structures and personnel assignments can be time consuming and cumbersome.

The stovepipes of state government have also taken them aback. They see little evidence of a true state "enterprise" at work that's comparable to their experiences working for large corporations. And they question whether these organizational and programmatic silos are serving the interests of citizens or businesses.

While they have been able to capitalize on their previous IT management experience, they have run into difficulties getting their arms around some parts of state government. Perhaps the most difficult area has been the lack of transparency in how things work. As one said, "All the important facts are hidden. It's difficult to make change without access to good data and there is no rule book." Noteworthy in this regard is how difficult it's been to get a clear picture of state IT costs--to "crack the code," as one CIO said--when state budgets mask so much of the true spending picture.

Another tricky area to master is politics. While they realize that state governments are not run like corporations, it's been an eye- opener for many to see just how much of their success depends on understanding the agendas of very powerful interest groups and people. Politics is so essential to the job, some said, that choosing IT leaders with hands-on political experience may better serve the state's interests than turning to experienced private-sector executives.

As to the pace at which government moves, many found that decisions on matters of critical policy can happen "at warp speed" when the movers and shakers are in the room. But, when it comes to transforming day-to-day IT operations, as is occurring in many states, "the time it takes to execute is shocking."

As to the people they've worked with, they've been pleasantly surprised by the dedication and commitment of state employees to public service but disappointed by resistance to change and the willingness to defend the status quo. "That's the way we've always done it" is one phrase they're tired of hearing.

Their advice to those who might follow in their footsteps is to immediately set and then manage a reasonable set of expectations. It's important not to underestimate the power of middle management and to invest time to develop and understand the importance of trusted relationships. It's necessary to build awareness and educate before you act and to be prepared to be an ambassador. While you shouldn't be afraid to take risks, under no circumstances should you surprise your governor or the chief of staff. Also, great customer service is the key to success.

It's too soon to say whether they'd do it again, but one leader captured the current perspective of most of them: "It's a different world inside the glass house than it is outside."

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