In Search of the Big Idea

After almost 20 years as president of Public Technology Inc., Costis Toregas is stepping down -- but he's hardly retiring.

by , / March 26, 2004
"Orgware."

For anyone who has known or worked with Dr. Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc. (PTI), the word "orgware" crystallizes the man's philosophy and his unique way of explaining it to local government leaders. The word, which Toregas coined, refers to the huge amount of taxpayer money and resources -- 80 percent of every dollar -- needed to support, manage and organize the other 20 percent spent on technology.

Today, Toregas' orgware philosophy is common knowledge in government leadership circles. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when mayors and managers were just beginning to look for ways to benefit from IT, they didn't understand that computer boxes and the software inside them were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of IT costs and management.

As president of PTI, a small but influential organization of cities and counties, Toregas articulated the need for sound IT management and policy in government to control orgware costs and issues when the demand for automation took off. Manage your orgware, Toregas argued, and you manage your destiny in terms of technology. Those who know Toregas observe his unique ability to not only foresee upcoming problems, but also clearly articulate solutions.

After 32 years of helping local governments achieve more with technology, including 19 years as head of PTI, Toregas is stepping down -- but he's hardly retiring.

"I hope to teach, to consult and to pursue some new interests," he said.

Brian Moura, assistant city manager of San Carlos, Calif., who has known Toregas since he became president of PTI, talked about his energy and passion for bringing the technology's advantages to local governments.

"Costis always had the vision on how to engage and get local leaders excited about what technology could do," Moura said. "His commitment to the concept of bringing technology and local government together is what makes him special."

-- Tod Newcombe, editor, Government Technology's Public CIO


Interview by Blake Harris

Q: How did you become interested in technology and the public sector?

A: It began when I was a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. I took an electrical engineering degree, and got a master's and Ph.D. in environmental sciences. I did my Ph.D. thesis on what was then an unexplored subject: the location of public facilities.

Back when street networks were purely academic concepts, I developed mathematical formulas to optimize the location of public facilities. After Cornell, I went to work for a small organization called PTI that was just starting to apply my doctoral dissertation to the location of fire stations. So unlike many graduate students who do a thesis and put it on a shelf to collect dust, my thesis was put to work in about 250 American and Canadian cities over the next four or five years.

That gave me the bug for the public sector, and at the same time, gave me a thirst to think about using technology in a variety of service-delivery areas. It also taught me the importance of early involvement of key decision-makers in technology implementations, so they could feel ownership of the end result. That significant guiding principle has stayed with me. Even though elected officials may not be technology experts, you have to somehow bring them into the process and allow them to articulate what they feel needs to be done, so the end result feeds their vision and passion, and not just that of an administrator or operations manager.


Q: Looking back at the history of PTI, would you say the organization was always at the forefront of technology -- PCs, laptops, e-mail, GIS -- long before most of the public, or even private, sector?

A: I can agree with that. But it wasn't just me. It was a network of men and women from the PTI member cities who had the bug to try out new technologies first -- the experimenters, the pioneers, the people who always work on the fringe and want to push the envelope a little bit.

In 1985, PTI launched PTI Net to link our local government pioneers. We didn't even know how to describe some of the technologies back then. But it is instructive to remember that we've constantly been pushing the envelope a little bit, and sometimes we pushed it too far. In the late '90s, PTI and the National Institute of Government Purchasing organized an e-commerce initiative to promote purchasing over the Web. We did a bid, selected a vendor -- IBM -- and marched out into the field with something we called Electronic Commerce for Government.

It failed, perhaps because we were a bit too early. If we had waited for another two or three years, the market might have been eager to embrace it. But that gives me the chance to point out another lesson I've learned: Unless you fail a few times, you may not be doing your job right -- especially if you are at PTI. We've got to constantly push the envelope and try new things. Sometimes you fail. I've been blessed at PTI to have a board of directors who have encouraged experimentation. When I came back to them and said this or that didn't work, they would say, "Keep on trying. If you do, the next one may succeed." I think that is import for local government practitioners. They are so risk adverse. They don't want to make a mistake, so it becomes important to cultivate a certain sense of risk acceptance by their elected officials.

If we don't fail now and again, that may mean we are not exploring, probing, challenging and finding better ways to serve the taxpayer. So that is another guiding principle -- not only accepting failure, but also learning from failure so next time we can succeed.


Q: As you look over your career at PTI, what are some achievements that stand out in your mind?

A: There are many things I could mention. But perhaps the one thing that stands out most is PTI's network of innovative men and women. That has ebbed and flowed. It has changed over the years. But it has remained a tremendous asset for the nation -- a network of innovators. We have come to call them the public technologists -- the men and women who contributed and provided their ideas and imagination to PTI. There was no such network before PTI was organized. There is a very strong network today that will continue to grow and strengthen our nation with new technological ideas.

The second way to answer that is to say there have been, over the years, many innovative strategies spawned by PTI. I could list a number of them, and if pressed, I could perhaps give one each decade that made a real significant impact.

In the '80s, I would single out a spectacular success in collectively purchasing commodities. Decades before we had mass buys and state purchasing contracts, the PTI membership organized a long distance pay phone service program with AT&T. In the end, more than 6,500 cities, counties and school board entities subscribed to it.

In the early '90s, PTI came out with a document called Surfing the Net, co-authored by Dianah Neff who is now the CIO in Philadelphia. That publication became a bellwether, a predictor of things to come, especially in regard to how cities would position themselves on the Internet.

In the later '90s, especially the run up toward the turn of the century, I would pick the Y2K campaign PTI launched with its national association sponsors. That was a perfect example of collaboration in action, and it involved more than just fixing the hardware and software. It was also about managing people's perception of Y2K risks.

The 2000s I would call the decade of wireless. We are excited about these developments as a way to provide cheap, inexpensive broadband in a wireless mode to citizens and employees. Something tells me it's got long legs and is going to go on for some time. But over and above all these things, I think the most important thing I go back to is the idea of collective action. Every time cities and counties have come together and organized themselves collectively, they have been able to do spectacular things. So collective action is certainly one of the major accomplishments of PTI.


Q: Over the last three decades, you have certainly seen a changing role for technology in local government. Looking back at the changes, what stands out most in your mind?

A: When I first started out, technology was seen as something slightly strange. Mayors and city managers wouldn't be caught dead in the same room as technology. Technology was something for some staff person to deal with. Today, you walk into a mayor's office, and the first thing you see is this official typing away on e-mail or surfing the Web and browsing some sort of important document. So I think one big change is the perception of technology as something that can serve not only the institution, but also the individual. The view that technology can change the way that individual works and contributes to the accomplishments and success of the institution -- that's new.


Q: From your vantage point, do you see other changing trends for technology in local government?

A: There is one trend that isn't completed yet. I see a healthy movement of technology becoming ever present and pervasive in all aspects of government. When e-government came up as an issue, people thought of e-government as a series of projects. I tried to convince people that e-government is not two or three projects, nor even 1,000 projects.

E-government involves taking the government processes we now have and creating electronic versions of them, thereby also gaining the chance to improve, transform and speed them up. Technology should not be seen as something you manage as a department or agency. Technology is nothing more than another tool. So the dominant component of technology should be made part and parcel of the processes of governance, rather than a department in itself that takes on a new life. I'm a little bit concerned that sometimes we seem to be spending more time managing the technology instead of managing with technology. There is a huge difference between these two things.


Q: You have often talked about the three outcomes as three legs of a stool. In America, these have formed something of a progression -- certainly in terms of the Internet. Governments first got a firm grip on service delivery, and today, most are feeling their way in terms of economic activity. Harnessing technology to forward and strengthen democracy still seems a bit out there.

A: Allow me to also connect one other component. Service delivery primarily stays within the government. It has to do with government and the population it serves. But it is a governmental function. When you go to economic development, now you are stepping outside of city hall and the county courthouse. You are going into the community, and you are asking, "Can I use technology as a platform for trade and as a platform for job creation?" the public, or even private, sector?

A: I can agree with that. But it wasn't just me. It was a network of men and women from the PTI member cities who had the bug to try out new technologies first -- the experimenters, the pioneers, the people who always work on the fringe and want to push the envelope a little bit.

In 1985, PTI launched PTI Net to link our local government pioneers. We didn't even know how to describe some of the technologies back then. But it is instructive to remember that we've constantly been pushing the envelope a little bit, and sometimes we pushed it too far. In the late '90s, PTI and the National Institute of Government Purchasing organized an e-commerce initiative to promote purchasing over the Web. We did a bid, selected a vendor -- IBM -- and marched out into the field with something we called Electronic Commerce for Government.

It failed, perhaps because we were a bit too early. If we had waited for another two or three years, the market might have been eager to embrace it. But that gives me the chance to point out another lesson I've learned: Unless you fail a few times, you may not be doing your job right -- especially if you are at PTI. We've got to constantly push the envelope and try new things. Sometimes you fail. I've been blessed at PTI to have a board of directors who have encouraged experimentation. When I came back to them and said this or that didn't work, they would say, "Keep on trying. If you do, the next one may succeed." I think that is import for local government practitioners. They are so risk adverse. They don't want to make a mistake, so it becomes important to cultivate a certain sense of risk acceptance by their elected officials.

If we don't fail now and again, that may mean we are not exploring, probing, challenging and finding better ways to serve the taxpayer. So that is another guiding principle -- not only accepting failure, but also learning from failure so next time we can succeed.


Q: As you look over your career at PTI, what are some achievements that stand out in your mind?

A: There are many things I could mention. But perhaps the one thing that stands out most is PTI's network of innovative men and women. That has ebbed and flowed. It has changed over the years. But it has remained a tremendous asset for the nation -- a network of innovators. We have come to call them the public technologists -- the men and women who contributed and provided their ideas and imagination to PTI. There was no such network before PTI was organized. There is a very strong network today that will continue to grow and strengthen our nation with new technological ideas.

The second way to answer that is to say there have been, over the years, many innovative strategies spawned by PTI. I could list a number of them, and if pressed, I could perhaps give one each decade that made a real significant impact.

In the '80s, I would single out a spectacular success in collectively purchasing commodities. Decades before we had mass buys and state purchasing contracts, the PTI membership organized a long distance pay phone service program with AT&T. In the end, more than 6,500 cities, counties and school board entities subscribed to it.

In the early '90s, PTI came out with a document called Surfing the Net, co-authored by Dianah Neff who is now the CIO in Philadelphia. That publication became a bellwether, a predictor of things to come, especially in regard to how cities would position themselves on the Internet.

In the later '90s, especially the run up toward the turn of the century, I would pick the Y2K campaign PTI launched with its national association sponsors. That was a perfect example of collaboration in action, and it involved more than just fixing the hardware and software. It was also about managing people's perception of Y2K risks.

The 2000s I would call the decade of wireless. We are excited about these developments as a way to provide cheap, inexpensive broadband in a wireless mode to citizens and employees. Something tells me it's got long legs and is going to go on for some time. But over and above all these things, I think the most important thing I go back to is the idea of collective action. Every time cities and counties have come together and organized themselves collectively, they have been able to do spectacular things. So collective action is certainly one of the major accomplishments of PTI.


Q: Over the last three decades, you have certainly seen a changing role for technology in local government. Looking back at the changes, what stands out most in your mind?

A: When I first started out, technology was seen as something slightly strange. Mayors and city managers wouldn't be caught dead in the same room as technology. Technology was something for some staff person to deal with. Today, you walk into a mayor's office, and the first thing you see is this official typing away on e-mail or surfing the Web and browsing some sort of important document. So I think one big change is the perception of technology as something that can serve not only the institution, but also the individual. The view that technology can change the way that individual works and contributes to the accomplishments and success of the institution -- that's new.


Q: From your vantage point, do you see other changing trends for technology in local government?

A: There is one trend that isn't completed yet. I see a healthy movement of technology becoming ever present and pervasive in all aspects of government. When e-government came up as an issue, people thought of e-government as a series of projects. I tried to convince people that e-government is not two or three projects, nor even 1,000 projects.

E-government involves taking the government processes we now have and creating electronic versions of them, thereby also gaining the chance to improve, transform and speed them up. Technology should not be seen as something you manage as a department or agency. Technology is nothing more than another tool. So the dominant component of technology should be made part and parcel of the processes of governance, rather than a department in itself that takes on a new life. I'm a little bit concerned that sometimes we seem to be spending more time managing the technology instead of managing with technology. There is a huge difference between these two things.


Q: You have often talked about the three outcomes as three legs of a stool. In America, these have formed something of a progression -- certainly in terms of the Internet. Governments first got a firm grip on service delivery, and today, most are feeling their way in terms of economic activity. Harnessing technology to forward and strengthen democracy still seems a bit out there.

A: Allow me to also connect one other component. Service delivery primarily stays within the government. It has to do with government and the population it serves. But it is a governmental function. When you go to economic development, now you are stepping outside of city hall and the county courthouse. You are going into the community, and you are asking, "Can I use technology as a platform for trade and as a platform for job creation?"

Ultimately to use technology to manage a declining economy is no fun. You want to use technology to manage a growing economy. So the real question is whether technology itself can be part of the fuel for an economic development machine. The answer is yes. Then democracy is the very essence of governance -- not only in this country but abroad as well. Here on the democracy side, I should tell you we are not as progressive and have not accomplished as much as many other nations.

In Europe, for instance, the notion of technology as service-delivery vehicle has remained well behind the notion of technology as a democratic instrument. The IT initiatives the European Union is funding in the various member states -- the Information Society initiatives -- make pronouncements about the digital divide, sustainable economic development and practical ways to help combat exclusion. These are phrases they use on a daily basis.

Sometimes I feel embarrassed that we are not up there yet. We are not focusing on this role for technology with the same passion I see in my European colleagues. Sometimes I wonder whether, over time, we might not catch up and apply the same rigor to the democracy side of the debate as we do in service delivery, and as we are beginning to do in the economic development domain.


Q: What do you see as your legacy at PTI? What are you most proud of personally?

A: I think perhaps the most important is a series of guiding principles. I've mentioned some of them here. Technology itself changes, but the guiding principles behind technology do not change, and it is those guiding principles that I feel most proud to have been able to articulate -- to first have drawn them from the public technologist network of men and women that I was privileged to serve. Second, to articulate them in the hope that people would apply them in dealing with ever-changing technology.


Q: It strikes me that in your view, technology was not only an important tool, but also the driver of a much larger vision for local government.

A: I wouldn't disagree with that description. I would say that in my way of thinking, I always like to challenge and incentivize people to make the big leap. I recognize that sometimes they won't make the big leap because of local circumstances, personal circumstances, or how they relate to risk, innovation and imagination. But you know what? If they hear the spark of what could be, someday they may accomplish it. My job was always, and will always be, to create a spark in people's hearts and people's minds.

Just because people can't do it today is no reason not to talk about it, not to celebrate it, and not to make absolutely sure people know what technology can give them. Most of the time, technology can do wonders. But we are constrained in our ability to accept it. So I continue to say, "Think big, think wide."

Also in the last few years, I have come to recognize the biggest challenge we have is our inability to work across boundaries -- to develop a concept of cross-boundary leadership. That is our Achilles' heel. Think about a city's technology deployment coming to grips with the fact that the state wants a different strategy. Or think about homeland security at the federal level issuing some kind of request that doesn't jibe or connect well with the culture, strategy or IT infrastructure of a county. How do we get people to work together across boundaries?

That has been the biggest technological challenge. If we could somehow get outside our boundaries and understand the other person's perspective, the whole system would move in a more positive and effective manner. That's one area where I feel my job isn't done yet. There is so much more to be done in bringing organizations and associations together.

So if I have a regret, it's that not everything is done. As I shift my base of operation, my passions for the use of technology and for public service will not cease. I will continue to work in that domain. It is just going to be in a different framework. I simply decided that while I was still young enough to chase a couple more platforms of action, I should do that.


Q: Many people regard local government as the bottom. But for you, in some ways it has been an inverse pyramid. Local government is at the top because it is often closest to the people.

A: I'm glad you mentioned that. I wouldn't have been as passionate and enthusiastic as I am if I didn't believe exactly that. Local government is indeed the very best level of service, the very best level of governance, and it deserves the very best. That is why for 32 years I've tried to give the local government constituency nothing but the very best.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor