CIO Profile: Catherine Maras O'Leary

Cook County, Ill.

by / September 24, 2002
About 20 years ago, Catherine Maras O'Leary began working for Cook County, Ill., to pay her way through school. In 1997, she found her way back as its CIO. With a staff of 85, Maras uses a background in business management and technology to provide a sound IT infrastructure for county agencies and an electronic front door for more than 5 million Cook County citizens.

What did you face when you became the county CIO?
I sized up early on what I had here. We had a $5,000 training budget. How can you train 85 people with $5,000? Using the old regression analysis [theory], there are only so many outputs you can get from the inputs. When you have 85 people, you have to determine what you can do. I could only do "X" amount of things, but I'm going do them very well. And I'm going do the most important things. Because we were able to consolidate and leverage, and I was able to buy a lot of good tools, we were able to free up more of our peoples' time to do more tasks.

Describe your approach to public sector IT?
It takes a bit longer because there are more rules. My theory here is you can either fight the rules or you can follow the rules. And I've always followed the rules. You have to plan better. I have 17 commissioners I have to pass things through, and I have internal customers. So whatever they need, I have to bring it to them in an enterprise fashion in the most cost-efficient way for us. I feel very accountable for everything happening in Cook County. You cannot delegate your accountability. There are a lot more checks and balances here than in corporate America. You could either think that's good or bad. I think it's good.

What is your goal for the citizens of Cook County?
We have a good infrastructure now. We've been doing e-commerce little by little. We're about to embark, hopefully, on an interactive voice response system that will allow us to provide a lot of information to people 24/7. We're going to supplement our IVR system with a portal. A lot of people don't know among the city, state and county how to gain access to us. We don't want people to guess. We don't want people to have to worry about where they go. It should all be transparent to them. We're working on that. I want the experience of working with Cook County to be a good one [for the citizens].