by Tracy Mayor

The CIO Role: The Shrinking Divide Between Public and Private Sector CIOs

May 01, 20035 mins

Wanted: Seasoned, experienced Chief Information Officer.

Must be willing to work long hours, endure lengthy public debate over day-to-day minutiae, answer hostile, intrusive questions from reporters, build a senior management team under severe financial and bureaucratic constraints. Tenure uncertain, linked to boss’s political performance. Salary as much as 70 percent below market value. No stock options. No bonuses. No relocation expenses.

Not exactly a job you’re dying to nail? Well, during the past 18 months a slew of top CIOs from corporate powerhouses such as Disney (Stuart McKee), EDS (George Newstrom) and Verizon (Thomas Jarrett) have said yes to jobs very much like the one described above: the job of state CIO.

It’s something of an emerging trend. All over the country, senior technology executives are jumping from the private to the public sector. Their motivation, surprisingly, isn’t entirely post-9/11 altruism or, conversely, disgust with corporate financial scandals. Being a government CIO, it turns out, can be a great job, and it can be a great stepping stone to the next job.

Of course, you won’t get rich. Salaries run 20 percent to 70 percent less than what’s being offered in the private sector. (One state CIO now earns less than he used to pay in taxes at his old job.) Instead of cash, the state CIO position offers compensation in the form of power and authority. State CIOs exercise control over a broad range of services, and they possess budgets (ranging from $30 million to $425 million) that can rival those of Fortune 50 organizations. Plus, they often have a surprisingly free hand with which to operate.

“It’s a challenging career move,” says Gerry Wethington, president of the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO). “Because of the economy, states are confronting a whole new set of issues, like business process efficiency, where the private sector has an opportunity to help.”

And public service, whether it’s at the federal, state or big city level, teaches CIOs skills that the private sector is finding ever more essential. “Negotiation skills, appropriations, how to work with a legislative body,” lists Wethington, who is himself CIO of Missouri. “Many corporations today are stymied by their ignorance of the business processes of government. If and when you go back to the private sector, you’ll have a better understanding of how to work with government.” Former Washington state CIO Steve Kolodney, long considered a superstar in government IT, is now vice president of digital government initiatives for American Management Systems, a Fairfax, Va., IT consultancy.

Is the Public Sector Right For You?

When states go looking for CIOs, they look for people with highly developed communication skills?managers who can explain technology to everyone from suspicious taxpayers to skeptical legislators, says Dick Bennett, principal at Bennett Associates, a Norwell, Mass., civic recruiter who recently helped the state of Washington fill its vacant CIO post.

State CIOs must be able to pull together massive, far-flung and often poorly integrated operations and must be adept at serving multiple constituencies. And candidates for state CIO have to be goal-oriented: term limits, or the voters, often dictate a short job tenure in which to effect change.

Must the ideal candidate be political as well? Not necessarily. While all but one of the state CIOs we profile knew their governor in some capacity before their appointment, NASCIO’s Wethington insists the job isn’t so much about Politics with a big “P” as it is about little “p” politics, although he admits it “helps if you’re known to the existing IT community in the state, particularly if your company has been in a good private-public relationship with the state government.”

But big “P” politics does, in fact, play a big part in the job. In the six weeks it took us to report this story, two of our potential profilees fell by the wayside. Utah CIO Phillip Windley resigned under pressure in December, unable to weather a storm of accusations over what a legislative report deemed were unfair hiring practices. (Windley, a former vice president at Excite@Home, had hired several other Excite employees at higher-than-average starting salaries and had apparently bypassed competitive-practices structures to do so.) And in November, Judith Teller, New Jersey CIO and newly appointed secretary and treasurer of NASCIO, quietly tendered her resignation to Gov. James McGreevey, telling CIO only that, “Due to budget and other concerns, it became clear the administration wasn’t going to focus on technology as a strategic enterprise asset.”

Windley’s crash is at least partly about living in a fishbowl; Teller’s is partly about pervasive budget crises that are reaching levels last seen during the Great Depression. Both cases highlight the fact that in politics, the CIO job is intimately tied to the successes and failures of the boss, be it the governor, the mayor or the president. (When Teller resigned, New Jersey Gov. McGreevey’s approval rating had fallen to 37 percent.) IT is often a difficult sell?inside government or out?and when times get tough, the CIO can suddenly find himself like Harry Potter, living under the administration’s stairs. As one CIO says, “If your governor isn’t willing or able to expend political capital to gain support for enterprise technology projects, you have to ask yourself what you’re doing there.” Or, in cases like Windley’s, the governor could wind up asking that question of you.

Why jump into such a snake pit? If it’s not about the money, and if the future’s uncertain, what’s the allure of public service? Every CIO we interviewed says a heartfelt belief in the responsibilities of citizenship is an absolute prerequisite for taking on the job.

“The position requires a fundamental belief in the idea of stewardship,” says Brian Wolf, CIO for the state of Montana. “If that’s not part of your thought process, this is not a job for you.”