Why Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue Thinks IT Can Make Government Work Better

As a small business owner in the days before the Internet, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue was an early LAN and e-mail adopter who learned to program in Unix. But he won't deploy the latest and greatest technology for state agencies unless it makes them more efficient and improves services to citizens.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) has been many things: crop duster pilot, football quarterback, Air Force captain, veterinarian and agribusiness entrepreneur. And though the long and varied résumé may not hint at it, he's also a bit of a geek.

As a veterinary student at the University of Georgia, Perdue also loved physics but did most of his calculations on a slide rule. He didn't get his first electronic calculator until after graduation in 1971. But once he got his hands on one, he was hooked. "I was just mesmerized by the power," says Perdue. Several years later, he set up his first client-server system for his own grain commodities business. The application that ran on the network was written in Unix, and the man who would become governor quickly became proficient using the VI text editor.

Technology remains front and center for the controversial politician, now in his second term (when he ran for his first term he told voters he would revive a state flag featuring the Confederate "Stars and Bars"), who promised to run Georgia like a business. Taxpayer demand for the public sector to use IT to improve its effectiveness, efficiency and openness has never been stronger, although there is debate in Georgia about Perdue's contributions to such change thus far. He says technology is the key to creating a state government that is "principle-centered, customer-friendly and results-driven." But although he sees himself as an IT early adopter, he says his gubernatorial role dictates that he approach new technologies as a "value-driven functionalist" concerned primarily with what works.

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Perdue recently spoke with CIO Senior Editor Stephanie Overby about the power and limits of IT, why he chose a businessperson rather than a technologist for the CIO role, and why sometimes the private sector might do a better job providing public services.

Stephanie Overby, CIO: You have been using computers as business tools for some 30 years. How do you feel about technology?

Gov. Sonny Perdue: I realized very quickly when the personal computer came along the power it could have. I also realized that we needed to share data within my business, so I was not for a standalone system. Our first computer system was the Radio Shack Xenix multi-user system [Microsoft's version of Unix], with dumb, green terminals connected to a central server. I think I ran my business for a number of years on, probably, a 100-meg hard disk. I actually became fairly proficient in VI and the visual editor for Unix and spent hours on the phone with a college in South Carolina playing around with how we could make our businesses more technologically proficient.

I remember when e-mail came along and we used it through the dial-up server at Georgia Tech. So I consider myself an early adopter of technology. But I also want something to operate well. That doesn't always mean having the latest, greatest toy.

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