Worst to First

CTO Suzanne Peck has carefully transformed the District of Columbia into a tech-savvy city known for its innovation.

by / April 7, 2006
Suzanne Peck's success at funding and executing Washington, D.C.'s technology revolution is no doubt due in part to her approachability and years of expertise. Peck's passion and vision for district government convey that she means business. And with the help of Mayor Anthony Williams, most of her technology dreams for district government have come true.

How else to explain the district's remarkable surge upward on the technology horizon? For outsiders, and even natives of the metropolitan region, the idea that district government could be an innovator has been a surprise. Potholed roads and former Mayor Marion Barry's well documented drug problems unfortunately stamped the district as a corrupt swampland of backward government. A visit to the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), however, deletes that impression in a heartbeat.

When Peck was appointed CTO in 1998, the district's technology infrastructure was creaky and disjointed. "We were usually at the bottom of any list, 50th or 51st," said Peck. "You couldn't hire anyone to work here, and when you did, you couldn't pay them on time. Then came Anthony Williams, the brave hope for the city. He had a vision, perspective and stature to attract talented Cabinet members to his effort to build a prosperous city."

The district's technology infrastructure is now considered the best among state and city governments in many ways, receiving the Center for Digital Government's Best of the Web awards in 2003 and 2005. Achievements have accumulated since that first undertaking.

The Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN) is the first citywide broadband wireless public safety network in the nation. Agencies use DCStat, a decision-support software tool to help city leaders gather and analyze strategic and real-time information from multiple agency databases.

The OCTO is building a unified communications center that will consolidate the command and control functions of emergency responders and public services. The district is also collaborating with neighboring jurisdictions in the national capital region to converge emergency response systems.

The Motivator
Throughout Peck's eight years as CTO, she has been clear on her message: "We are dedicated to creating a seamless, interoperable telecommunications system capable of delivering voice, data and video information over our own high-speed fiber-optic network to our agency customers and to the world."

Veronica Lipscombe, Peck's colleague and director of Citywide Network Services, has worked in district government "since the paper days," going on 31 years, and has served with every single district mayor. At one point, Lipscombe and Peck were the only employees in the district's new technology office.

"I remember when Suzanne started -- she had very high self-esteem and determination, and I thought, 'She is the one who is going to make the difference, and the district will never be the same,'" Lipscombe said. "I have a love for the district. I for one can attest to what she has done. Suzanne is a motivator."

Peck worked 25 years in the private sector for Fortune 500 companies, including a 10-year stint as CIO of Sallie Mae. Before starting as the district's CTO, Peck accepted the position of CTO at the U.S. Department of Education. What changed her mind? "Some key people persuaded me that technology needs were much greater in the district, so I followed that need."

She came to the job with lofty goals and expectations. In a spirit of philanthropy, Peck said she wanted to return something to society and donate her expertise and experience. "It is my most extraordinary honor to serve the citizens of the district and give them the services they deserve."

Mayor Williams has been a visible partner in technology, and has emphasized it as a key component of governmental leadership. "Suzanne has a single-minded approach to getting things done that I admire and respect," he said. "She's turned the district's Web site into one of the best in the country, but more importantly, she's helped create a high-tech infrastructure for the entire district government. She, like me, wants our city to be a leader in technology."

The contrast today is stark compared to when Peck signed on in 1998. "During the first two years in the district, my eyes were as big as saucers," she said. "Coming from the private sector, I was acutely aware of the district's needs and lack of sophistication in terms of electronic support of employees and residents."

Peck's first significant project was the Y2K rollover. "In the capital of the free world, we had no Y2K program 18 months before rollover," she said, adding that in that short period, she procured services from IBM and spent $170 million to cross into the millennium without incident. "Our triumph was we were successful without five years to plan, and so bravely we began."

One Plus One
Peck has catalyzed this dramatic metamorphosis by deliberately designing a power team as she fleshed out the OCTO. She continually attributes the OCTO's success to the "smarter" people around her. Peck calls the practice "one plus one," which means she recruited a few "number ones" from her Fortune 50 Rolodex in prior positions. Her "number ones" recruited number ones, creating a domino effect. "I believe fewer, better people attack tasks better," Peck said. "I set out to build an A-team."

"Jewel by jewel, we've added more 'ones' to our staff. You have to be unafraid to hire those first two number ones." Peck, looking around the room at the six or so staff members she assembled for the interview, pointed to each person and demonstrated how, like a pyramid scheme, many had recruited others in the room, some during the dot-com bust.

Often reluctant to assume the limelight and accept all the credit for the district's progress, Peck constantly diverts praise to her colleagues, who in turn commend her leadership. "It's the mutual reverence club," said Peter Roy, deputy CTO of the OCTO's Tech City Development.

Peck's administrative turnover has been low, and many employees, like Robert LeGrande, deputy CTO for the OCTO's Wireless and Human Services Modernization programs, have stayed on, perhaps due to the wide berth and creativity they are allowed. "I came from MCI and Lockheed Martin," he said. "Here, I was blown away by what had been done and by what was left to do. I could not have had such a comprehensive experience in another jurisdiction, or even in the private sector. Suzanne sets my project budget, and as long as I keep the stakeholders happy, I get free rein to be as creative as I want -- as long as it fits the business plan."

There are several reasons the OCTO has attracted great people, Peck said. "First, because of all the work entailed in moving a department out of the 'worst' category, there have been many more opportunities to be creative than in other places. Second, people respond to the collegial atmosphere, which encourages the best from everyone. Third, along the line we've had to do some interesting things to compensate people appropriately, and that keeps them here too."

Peck's staff is simultaneously informal and deeply respectful of her authority. She shouts down the hall, and those summoned show up immediately at her door. However, she is equally at ease taking their advice. Jamey Harvey, the OCTO's director of strategy, recalled Peck's promise to Williams of the best Web portal in the nation. Despite the ongoing work to give the Web site a needed facelift, Peck was very attached to the old Web design. "When I saw the new design, I hated it and said so," she recalled. "But Jamey patiently walked me through and demonstrated why this next-generation site was the best choice for D.C."

Peck is rational, Harvey said. "She is willing to sacrifice an emotional favorite in favor of the numbers when the math doesn't lie." Peck and her office are very proud of the district's award-winning Web site. "Vendors tell us it's the gold standard," Peck said. "Few others are reusing applications and architecture at this level."

An Atypical Enterprise
Energy and enthusiasm are palpable in the OCTO. Laughter and ribbing come easily, yet there is also a quiet air of diligence and respect. The level of expertise and talent among the staff is top-notch.

"I came to the department and saw people running down the halls like they were at a dot-com," said Dan Thomas, DCStat program manager. "You'd never expect that in a government office." Several employees echoed that the office feels like one in the private sector thanks to its innovation and creativity. "Suzanne brings in great people and lets us do our job with autonomy," said Adam Rubinson, deputy CTO for e-government development.

Indeed, to an outsider, the OCTO looks and feels unlike a typical municipal office. Overlooking Judiciary Square, the seat of district government and the city skyline, the offices are open and collaborative. Several grand boardrooms serve as venues for meetings with vendors, and state, federal and local governments. LeGrande acknowledges that the department's success with integrating communications systems and serving citizens has resulted in part from approaching the district as an enterprise. "This way of thinking changes the dynamics of how we serve our citizens," he said.

And Peck agrees. "We are business people first. Business comes first, technology second."

From a business perspective, adopting best practices makes good sense. Peck calls it something else. "Our motto is steal, steal, steal," she joked.

Private-sector practices do abound at the OCTO, Rubinson said. "We are public sector-oriented in the services we deliver, but we are not operating on government time."

Each OCTO project receives equal dedication, and Peck is the perennial cheerleader, explaining the need and benefit of each technology component with infectious animation. "For two years or so on the Web site, we masked what we didn't have with pages and pages of content. Meanwhile, we quietly built the portal piece by piece from the bottom up. Now we have the architecture that allows us to add components without rebuilding the whole structure."

This approach to building the district's Web site has been cost-effective as well. "We are a leader in terms of the reuse of applications, which allows us to build on our existing technology," said Rubinson, to which Peck responded, "We squander nothing. Build once, use many."

Free Rein Without Representation
The district's unique jurisdiction operates for all purposes as city, county and state government for its 580,000 residents, providing all local municipal services and a complex array of services for the federal government. Among the states, the district is alone in providing its own telephone services. The OCTO also serves as the congressional first responder in fires and emergency situations, and oversees such services as communications coverage in the tunnels of Metro, the region's mass transit subway system.

Unique among states, Congress determines the district's budget, and residents have no legislative representation. Peck, however, doesn't feel hamstrung by the district's unique role. "Our job is made much easier as an integrated whole. The district has the best opportunity to be the best organization. We don't have to collaborate with layers of government. This flexibility and the mayor's support allow us to innovate," Peck said. "In my view, the mayor [who calls her 'General Peck'] views us as the leveraging agency for his government, and as his personal blog support team." The mayor's Weblog (blog) has been a popular outreach to district residents.

In one example of achieving the unexpected, the district is on its way to having all government services freed from Verizon's wireless monopoly. Its private fiber-optic network, DC-NET, is fully duplicative and reliable. "We went from paying Verizon $10 million a year to saving $10 million. We fought Verizon every step of the way. Escaping that monopoly was a savings for our city."

Peck said when she's not campaigning for funds and spearheading projects, she's prodding her staff to do the impossible. While pushing beyond traditional boundaries of government, she has shown a lack of reverence for, and an intolerance of, bureaucratic obstacles. "This may seem pushy and arrogant, but it's more a matter of being old and wrinkled enough to know how to get things done," she explained. This combination has proven to open doors and forge a new viewpoint on how governments can efficiently provide services and achieve full interoperability.

"Peck has no respect for bureaucracy, no patience for it," said Deputy CTO Peter Roy. "When she started, we couldn't buy anything, couldn't hire anyone, and were told the money wasn't there. She did not accept the status quo, which is very unusual in a bureaucracy."

Peck's personality and expertise, as well as her expectations for the OCTO, have a ripple effect throughout the department. Victor Grimes, director of Web Services, said Peck empowers people to do the impossible. "She's witty and funny, has a can-do attitude, is very inspiring, and also challenges us to maintain our No. 1 status."

Harvey said Peck is indefatigable. "She is so good at absorbing everything we throw at her and then finding the one true north, and her insight is always right on."

Peck figures out how to attract the best people, find the funding and put together the strategy, said Rubinson. "She expects the impossible and gets it."