March 8, 2006 By Andy Opsahl
It isn't wise to provoke labor unions, but Walter Ekard, chief administrative officer (CAO) of San Diego County, risked it to outsource the entire county's IT operations to a private company in 1999. The project led Ekard on a stormy path, testing his humility, but ending in rousing success.
San Diego's IT infrastructure was in shambles for years -- legacy systems fell apart, and employees were poorly trained and given few tools to provide IT services to 17,000 employees.
Ekard took San Diego County out of the IT business and selected a "world-class" IT provider -- insisting technology production and maintenance was not a core competency of government.
San Diego labor unions waged war with an expensive media campaign, throwing Ekard into a battle for the public's support. The 200 county IT employees displaced by the outsourcing plan weren't unionized, but organized labor still battled the initiative, said Ekard.
"We thought we were doing what was in the best interest of the public, but we [couldn't] spend a million dollars on four-color mailers, [like the unions]," Ekard said, adding that organized labor worked feverishly at turning county employees against his team -- roughly 16,000 of the county's 17,000 employees were unionized. Ekard ultimately convinced county workers that outsourcing would make their jobs easier. But after outsourcing began with Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), IT got worse.
"We had systems going down, and in some cases, service levels were worse than before," Ekard said.
The difficulty aligning a private-sector business with government workings continued for two years. Ekard had nowhere to get advice -- San Diego County was the first government entity in the country to fully outsource IT. "One of the things that turned it around was when I finally came to the conclusion that I [had] to go public with this and just fess up," Ekard said.
He told CSC he was ready to default, and then suddenly saw rapid improvement. Systems functioned reliably and service levels surged. Ekard said he was satisfied with CSC's performance for the remainder of its seven-year contract, but his team selected Northrop Grumman IT to carry on the torch in 2005.
"We want to get the best, and we want to keep people hungry for our business," Ekard said.
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