by Elana Varon

20/20 HONOREES – Frank Fairbanks

Oct 01, 20022 mins

City Manager

City of Phoenix

Frank Fairbanks has become an IT leader by getting out of the way. It’s a skill he learned from his mentor, former Phoenix City Manager Marvin Andrews. “He could never figure out how to use a computer,” says Fairbanks, “but he was so supportive of innovation, he encouraged me to take the lead.”

Fairbanks, 56, a Phoenix native, has been city manager for 12 years. During that time, the city has earned numerous management accolades, including best run city in the world in 1993, according to the Bertelsmann Foundation, due in part to the way the city agencies use technology to manage their performance and deliver services. Among Fairbanks’s coups have been outsourcing most systems development to contractors who can afford to hire better technical talent, and improving business-IS alignment by periodically changing which of five deputy city managers his CIO reports to. The strategy has paid off. “If I had to say the thing I’m most proud about, it’s that people are excited about information technology and they feel authorized to try to develop projects,” says Fairbanks.

Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based technology think tank for local governments, has known Fairbanks for 25 years. Fairbanks was never “an IT nut,” Toregas says, but always understood that technology was a tool that could help him accomplish his service delivery goals?unusual for government leaders at any level until recently.

Although Fairbanks has concentrated on building systems to improve the city’s internal operations, projects to enable citizens to transact business with the city have lagged. “It’s a huge handicap,” he admits. Phoenix will begin to address the gap this year with some online bill payment services and is developing a system that will let developers file blueprints and apply for building permits electronically.