The Smartest Thing Chris O'Brien Ever Did

Former CIO of Chicago Chris O'Brien, now a principal in PwC's Public Sector Practice, offers some surprising advice: ignore technology.

by Chris O’Brien, former CIO, Chicago / May 28, 2013
Former Chicago CIO Chris O'Brien


Editor's note: In this series, Public CIO set forth to find answers from several of the nation’s top CIOs who have served or currently are in state, local and federal positions. These firsthand accounts are about how establishing partnerships, trusting and letting go, investing in people, and assessing situations have all been instrumental to smart decision-making.

Chris O’Brien spent 6 years as a public-sector CIO and today is a principal in PwC’s Public Sector Practice, which supports the federal government, state and local governments, and multi-lateral organizations. PwC helps its public-sector clients to develop and support departmentwide strategies, manage risk and compliance, and harness business intelligence and analytical capabilities. PwC’s advisory professionals bring direct hands-on knowledge of federal standards for systems, internal controls and financial reporting.

Ignore Technology

This has to be a trap, right? The smartest thing I’ve ever done was certainly marrying my wife. Oh, as a public sector CIO, you say. Well, that is not so clear. I suppose I would have to say that the smartest thing I did as a CIO was one born not out of intellect but necessity: to ignore the technology.  

Few were more surprised than me to learn that then-mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, would appoint me to steward his technology program in 2000. Just two years earlier, as a management consultant at the age of 30, I had been lured to the city as a project manager by its current CIO. After accomplishing much, the CIO moved on to new challenges, turning over to me a role that, as long as I live, will define me professionally. But, you see, there was a problem – I was technology illiterate. For all I knew, chips, cookies and spam were foods to avoid, while fiber was something that, in appropriate amounts, could keep you light on your toes. All of a sudden, I was in charge of a massive technology program, and I kept wondering where the hamster wheels were.  

In the early days of my tenure, however, while I was dressing up and playing the part of the chief technician, something began to dawn on me. Near as I could tell, the questions about the bits and bytes were pretty well covered – the smart technologists I inherited could, when provided with a clear set of objectives, decide what the right database platforms, application standards and technology tools were. Left unattended, however, in an organization where departments are by their nature silos, were questions about how it all fits together, and how the ballet of city government can be better choreographed. For too long, designing specialized technology to meet needlessly specialized processes was encouraging fragmentation. The CIO needed to think less about technology, and it seemed that destiny, or the mayor, had put me in my role because I was uniquely qualified to do that.

I learned to view the city as not 42 agencies each with its own unique technology, but seven or so interconnected processes - administrative processing, customer service fulfilment, compliance, revenue and taxation, public safety and case management and asset management – that should drive toward the same ways of doing things.  These processes had to be supported by accurate information on citizens, businesses and property. Inspecting a building, for example, is the same fundamental process as inspecting a restaurant, and a citizen request demanded similar steps to fulfill, whether they were asking for a new garbage can or reporting a lost cat. Technology would be the glue that connected these processes, but it is best applied after all the pieces have been taken apart and reassembled in the right order.

The CIO is the only one who can do this, because we are the ones people come to when processes are broken. During my six years with the city, a team of incredibly talented project managers and technologists implemented an ERP, completed work on the nation’s first 311 system, rolled out an enterprise portal, established a common repository of people and property, and launched the city’s first Web portal. And despite de-emphasizing technology, we implemented some of the most elegant and enduring technology solutions available, because getting the processes right meant that the right tools would be selected and their implementation would be smoother. My city offered me the opportunity to chart its technology future, and the smartest thing I ever did was to pay no attention to the technology.

This opportunity to take on a role as a public CIO, and learning to forget the technology, has afforded me the unique experience that helps me better serve my clients today at PwC.

See the rest of the stories in the "Smartest Thing" series.