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.
CIO: What made you think that running state government like a business was a good idea? And what does IT have to do with that?
Gov. Perdue: The primary business principle I wanted to bring [to state government] was fact-based decision-making. Heretofore, I think our state had been run on a lot of emotional, political, “who’s-in-power” decisions rather than on data. I don’t consider myself particularly gifted from an intuitive standpoint. Therefore, I have to rely on data and facts to make decisions.
I look at data as a compass, not as a map. We know that we want a more educated, healthy, growing and safe state, but what are the data points that we need to achieve those things? The metrics in our state were in very poor shape. The very fact that a state—now, it’s a $20 billion business—did not even know how many automobiles it had, who was driving them, what were they being used for; that we had no consolidated database of the property we owned—from the perspective of a CEO or manager, if you don’t know where your fixed assets are and what their return on investment is, you have no basis on which to make decisions for the future.
I think the voters of Georgia felt disenfranchised. They believed that decisions were being made capriciously and arbitrarily based on politics rather than on sound principles. I think that was a distinction that I offered: a commitment to make decisions that would be customer-friendly, results-driven, data-driven, and serve people.
CIO: Are there limits to your ability to run Georgia like a business, based on data?
Gov. Perdue: We have to do some things for which there is no profit incentive. But I like to think there’s always a value incentive for our state and our citizens. The dividends may not be monetary. They may be better education, better infrastructure, better roads, better schools and better health care. Those are all value choices that depend on policy decisions based on good information. And how do you get that? You’ve got to have gauges—technological processes and procedures—in place where you can measure and manage where you are.
State of Georgia
Patrick Moore, Executive Director, Georgia Technology Authority
CIO: Can you share some specific examples of a problem in Georgia that had a technology-enabled solution?
Gov. Perdue: One that we’re most proud of is an award-winning Web-based system, BLLIP: Georgia’s Building, Land and Lease Inventory of Property. It’s a Web-based GIS system that sorts information having to do with buildings, land and leases by many different data points (for instance, where the land that we own is, for what purpose it’s being used, cost per square foot). It’s been a huge resource by which we could improve our space management, to decide where our divergent group of operations needs to be and how we could provide synergy in certain communities. In some counties we had 40 to 50-plus separate leases for different functions. This system gives us an opportunity to coordinate those, collaborate and, we believe, be more effective and efficient.
Let’s say that we have an agency that’s looking to lease a building in a particular area of Georgia. Our state property officers go to [the agency managers in] that county and say, Were you aware that we already had 10,000 square feet of spare space down there? You use that data to make decisions about space management rather than doing things ad hoc.
CIO: Why wasn’t something like that put in place sooner?
Gov. Perdue: Good question. Transparency of information has not always been fondly accepted in political environments. I believe if you’re going to run a government, the more information that’s out there, the more opportunity there is for doing better. And I just think it’s the right thing to do. Many times Republicans get accused of being more close-minded [about transparency]. But I’ve felt there are advantages in running a very transparent government, and technology is one of the ways that you can be extremely transparent. The business information you can put out there is extremely powerful [for running the state more effectively].
CIO: The Georgia Technology Authority (GTA), the state’s central IT organization, was created in 2000. What was your opinion of the GTA when you took office? Did you make any changes there?
Gov. Perdue:I was in the state Senate and voted for it when it was created. I viewed it as an enterprise-wide authority that could be an internal consultant for our agencies in areas of technology and how to be more productive. The real benefit of technology, I think, is productivity, and the GTA was created to get us all on some consistent standards and consistent platforms to manage the collective data that we had in the state, and to do that in a very safe, secure environment. When I became governor, I found that organization was morphing into more of an operational entity, doing some things that the private sector did well.
For example, GTA was responsible for all aspects of operating the state’s wide area network (WAN). It built and owned some of the infrastructure itself and leased other components from several different private-sector providers. Being able to finance upgrades to newer technology is just one of the challenges GTA faced. In 2004, GTA outsourced the state WAN to BellSouth (now AT&T). GTA can focus on vendor management of the WAN instead of service delivery. Its staff makes sure the service provider meets contractual obligations, and AT&T is responsible for delivering services and upgrading WAN technology.
The leadership I’ve placed over there now is Patrick Moore, a young man with an MBA from the University of Virginia that I’ve got a lot of confidence in. His core training is not in information technology. But he is an intuitive leader, a business analyst who has an enterprise-wide vision of how the GTA can be the trusted internal resource to agencies for technology solutions.
The way I look at GTA is as somewhat of an IBM Solutions type of agency for the state of Georgia, to help agencies think through their processes, to think through the operations that they need, to help them to define within the context of the state what is the best use of technology.
CIO: Why was it more important for the CIO to have business knowledge than to have technology knowledge?
Gov. Perdue: I wanted a business leader there because the job is not simply about technology. Technology is the tool that we use for improving business processes and for business productivity. Both for learning to do the right things, which I define as effectiveness, and doing them in a way that provides the greatest value, which I think is efficiency.
I don’t think you have to be a technologist to know what the application of technology to business processes can achieve. It was Patrick’s ability to analyze, to assess, to prioritize and to have a business model for the future that impressed me. He has a vision to lead GTA not in a purely reactive mode, but in a very strategic fashion in order to build a long-term IT model for the state that would bring [its agencies] together, that would create the synergies that I think are available in an organization this size.
CIO: One of the challenges the public sector faces is keeping up with the pace of technology change. How important is it that Georgia stay current in terms of IT?
Gov. Perdue: I don’t think we have to always have the latest, greatest, cutting-edge technology as long as what we’re using is functional, efficient and productive.
As rapidly as technology is changing nowadays, in an organization this size, you can spend most all of your time and most of your capital just retooling every few months to have the latest and greatest. I think we have to do [big technology change] in stages. Training is a huge part of any deployment of new technology, and there has to be a certain total life cost that’s amortized from a training perspective and from a utilization perspective, before we make decisions to move into the beta approach of any new technology. Oftentimes, we are probably not well-served by trying to be the first to test something.
CIO: As you say, you have to digest big projects in stages. What are some of the big projects being phased in right now?
Gov. Perdue: We are just rolling out a project that was painfully slow and cost millions of dollars: our Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information Systems (SACWIS). SACWIS didn’t even exist when I took office. There were several attempts to put a system in place dating back several years, but each one failed for a variety of reasons, most related to poor project management and problems with the procurement process. But it is a moral imperative. [A federal mandate also requires that all states develop a comprehensive automated case management tool to support state child protection workers.] We put a priority on it when we got here, we put project managers on there, and we believe we’ve got a good functioning system that we are rolling out statewide in a very aggressive fashion.
The other system, where there had also been some multimillion-dollar hiccups, is our student information system in our Department of Education. I believe, to do the right thing by our students, we need a good student information system. [The Georgia Statewide Student Information System (GSSIS) assigns allstudents a unique identifier that allows the state to track their progress as they move from school to school and match their test scores to their records.]
This is one area I thought we were making great progress. But we’ve had some disappointing setbacks over the last year so we are going to put in more intensive project management. GTA has assumed a primary role in that project, where heretofore it was controlled by the Department of Education.
Someone has to own the project. Oftentimes we delegate these things down to a bureaucracy and no one is in charge. It’s almost like building a house by committee: It would almost never get done.
CIO: Many states are trying to transform their IT organizations. Some, like Michigan, are taking on the task themselves. Others, like Texas and Virginia, have brought in outsourcers. What is the right model for Georgia?
Gov. Perdue: Georgia is better served with a balanced approach. I believe that GTA can be that internal consultant for IT solutions. From an operations standpoint, the private sector probably has the expertise and experience [to execute our ideas], as long as we know what we want. We do believe we have to retain some IT capability to make sure that we know what the capabilities of the technology are, so that we can put smart RFPs out on the street, and so we can be very clear in communicating what our expectations are.
Frankly, I believe that public/private competition is perfectly OK. Whether our citizens can be better served by a public enterprise providing a service or by a private enterprise, they really don’t care.
CIO: What do you think are the biggest challenges today facing the state generally and the GTA specifically?
Gov. Perdue: Actually, it’s a lack of rain; we’re really dry.
CIO: Not much IT can do about that, I guess.
Gov. Perdue: You never can know. But the challenge for the GTA, again, is to provide value to our citizens by using the tools of technology in a more productive way.
CIO: Your term will be up in 2010. In terms of the state and its effective use of technology, what would you like your legacy to be?
Gov. Perdue: The only legacy I have is putting good people in place who have good judgment, who understand value, who understand how to improve processes. Even in administrative areas. How to cut out the fat and to provide enough lubricant in the [system] so that processes function together with as little s friction as possible.