Walter Ekard

Chief Administrative Officer

San Diego County

Conquering IT's Third Rail

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.

-- Andy Opsahl

Thomas L. Friedman


The New York Times

Our Guide to the 21st Century

Although New York Times Columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written many columns and articles on various topics, it's a safe bet he's never taken a stab at investigating the impact of IT on the public sector. Yet he easily made our Top 25 ranking for 2005. The reason is simple -- he wrote one of the most talked-about books in government and the IT community as a whole.

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, is a well written examination of today's great economic trend: the outsourcing of U.S. service and IT jobs to China and India, in particular. Thanks to a convergence of forces -- including the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Soviet-style economies, and the rise of the Internet and cheap telecommunications -- the world has entered a new age of globalization, he argues, with "new players on a new playing field, developing new processes and habits of horizontal collaboration."

While the mainstream press raised questions about some of Friedman's assessments, those in the IT community and government nodded in agreement with his findings. CIOs and IT professionals understood the convergence Friedman writes about and the impact technology is having on the economy and society.

"I call certain new technologies the steroids because they are amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners," Friedman wrote. "They are taking all the forms of collaboration -- outsourcing, off-shoring, open-sourcing, supply-chaining, insourcing and informing -- and making it possible to do each and every one of them in a way that is digital, mobile, personal and virtual."

Former West Virginia CIO Keith Comstock called Friedman's book, "a disturbingly accurate assessment of what our world has become." In particular, he highlights Friedman's point that a flat world helps not just global IT companies, but also global terror organizations.

But the ideas in Friedman's book that resonate loudly in government circles are those dealing with a flat world's impact on our education system, the economy, and to a certain extent, on IT within government. When government IT professionals read that their work is being outsourced for far less pay, they can't help but ponder the changes taking place.

When politicians try to pass laws forbidding the public sector from doing business with firms that have off-shore operations, CIOs and their colleagues are left confused about protecting American jobs at the expense of access to high-quality, low-cost services and software that could cut public-sector IT costs while improving operations.

It's hard to ignore these quandaries. Friedman has done us all a service by writing so effectively about these sobering yet potentially exciting changes.

  -- Tod Newcombe

Mark Gordon

Gordon & Glickson

Expert Advice

In 2005, Mark Gordon and his team of attorneys logged lots of frequent flyer miles. Gordon's Chicago-based law firm Gordon & Glickson -- which specializes in advising government jurisdictions on technology contracting -- worked with San Diego County, Calif., and Virginia on blockbuster outsourcing deals.

San Diego County, which has practiced large-scale outsourcing since 1999, awarded its outsourcing contract extension to a completely new IT provider. And Virginia's state government started down the road of outsourced IT infrastructure and management.

These two events represent the culmination of outsourcing taking root in the public sector over the last 10 years, something Gordon has watched from the beginning. Outsourcing is beginning to flourish, and it's because of new public-sector leadership, according to Gordon.

"In Virginia, San Diego County and other places, a group of leaders came into offices that were willing to make technology a priority matter," he said. "These kinds of transactions are high profile. They take a lot of energy, and these governments need to be willing to put that kind of energy and resources into these projects for them to live."

It's a far cry from the early days of outsourcing, Gordon said, when such deals raised significant ire and were hotly contested by unions and state legislatures.

"In many respects, our law firm got involved in the public sector because it was trying to import the experiences of the private sector," Gordon said, noting that his attorneys are more than partners with government clients. "We're members of a team, and in my world, that's a big deal. It's not that you can't be hired to provide expertise on an issue, but the value proposition is so much more powerful when you're part of a team.

"Teams form," he continued. "They don't pop up. Real teams get built over a common mission, a common understanding, good relationships and trust. We don't own the market on any of those virtues, but we like to think we portray them."

-- Shane Peterson