Firing a Public CIO for Telling the Truth Sets a Bad Precedent at Many Levels (Opinion)

Virginia CIO Lem Stewart's firing seems to be punishment for spotlighting problems with the state's contract with Northrop Grumman.

by / July 17, 2009

[Editor's Note: In June, state CIO and Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) Director Lem Stewart was fired by the state's IT Investment Board, VITA's oversight panel. Virginia Secretary of Technology Len Pomata is vice chair of the IT Investment Board, as well as the chair of the IT Investment Board's IT Infrastructure Committee, which oversees the 10-year, $2.3 billion Northrop Grumman contract with Virginia. The IT Investment Board has named Pomata interim state CIO.]

I have tried to teach my children that lying is wrong by disciplining them less harshly when they tell the truth about something bad they've done versus trying to lie. So after reading about the abrupt firing of Virginia's state CIO, Lem Stewart, in the local paper recently, I was surprised by my reaction that maybe sometimes telling the truth is worse than telling a lie or remaining silent -- at least for your career. I quickly dismissed that thought and instead recalled circumstances where telling the truth or doing the right thing at work had caused discomfort, and once, a change in employers.

While plenty of opportunities to profit from my executive position or take advantage of circumstances were presented to me during my long public-sector career, I was only asked, i.e., told, once to do something unethical and as it turns out, illegal, by a boss. It did not take long for me to decide not to do it and while other conditions existed that made moving on the best option, I chose to walk away instead of compromising my ethics. Although I was not surprised to hear later that the issue blew up, it did not bring me any pleasure to be right. I was glad though that I made the choice to do the right thing.

Anyone who has worked in the public sector knows it's a tough place that often feels as if you are swimming in shark-infested waters. Office politics take on a whole new meaning when you really are working with political figures, both elected and appointed. Also, adding to the pressure, are the large dollar amounts at stake in the technology arena. Although I have several scars to show for my public-sector career, I learned a few lessons along the way that helped me avoid being eaten alive.

First, just say no. Avoid temptation whenever possible and work hard to resist it when it comes. Expensive lunches, golf outings, fishing trips, hard-to-get tickets, etc. provide brief entertainment but they really are not worth it if taking them will be in violation of ethics rules or other regulations. Even when it is OK to accept, the "debt" it creates with the giver is seldom worth the pleasure. Several people I know have damaged their careers, or at the very least, their reputations by assuming that no one would find out if they accepted something on the side.

In the workplace, two maxims hold true. First, prepare people for bumps in the road. It helps to identify and talk about issues early on to properly set expectations. The challenge in the technology environment is to prepare people for potential problems without curbing the enthusiasm needed to retain their support. Second, bad news does not age well. When problems do arise, it is best to get them out in the open as soon as practical. Again, people will find out eventually and getting others involved sooner rather than later might actually prevent things from snowballing.

Which brings me to my next two lessons learned. First, I had a boss early in my career who said that I could not bring a problem to him without also bringing a solution, or better yet, several solutions. Frankly, in my youth, I thought that this approach was lame. Why was he being paid the big bucks if I had to come up with all the answers? Eventually, I learned that this approach was a good lesson in focusing on resolution instead of the problem itself. I also realized that it helps to cushion the blow of real or potential bad news, if you present possible solutions at the same time as discussing an issue.

Another lesson learned was to take the "smart, lazy person's approach," which was how one of my mentors defined working smarter. It was his way of saying that you will get farther ahead more quickly by improving upon what's already been done and learning from the successes and failures of others. Seeking expert advice and researching possible solutions or options used by others works especially well in the public sector. This approach won't solve every type of dilemma, but it is useful in many circumstances, even if you only discover what doesn't work.

It also helps to find allies or, at the very least, witnesses when you go into tough political situations or deliver bad news or unpopular opinions. Knowing who backs your position and will stand with you prior to sticking your neck out is crucial for survival. Of course, that does not mean you will actually get their support in the end. I found myself standing alone on many occasions while my supporters and like-minded colleagues sat there with their mouths tightly shut!

When all else fails, be prepared for the fallout and have an escape plan ready. Sometimes you really do have to tell the truth and face the harsh consequences or walk away to avoid compromising your ethics. It's the unfair and unpleasant reality of the workplace.

Back to the topic of the dismissal of Virginia's CIO. One has to wonder if the fox is now guarding the henhouse. While some truth to the allegation of poor management of the contract might exist, what happened to the separation of powers? More importantly, what message is being sent when dismissal was by an apparent friend of big business who put himself in charge? Is being fired the reward for telling the truth? It sure looks like it in this case.

Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas