Working as a public CIO can be a stressful job that comes with some unsavory snags. The stress of working in the public eye can bring out the gray hairs. There’s scrutiny from every direction — the media proffers criticism of every decision, there are co-workers who have agendas and don’t cooperate, and with such pressure, even the CIO may come to privately second-guess his or her own decisions. Getting things done is never as easy as it seems — CIOs have to fill out three forms and hold a meeting just to use the restroom. And being a public servant means being responsible for millions of dollars and taking a pay cut for the privilege of working for government.
For example, the average salary of a state CIO is $130,552, according to a survey released biannually by NASCIO. This figure is more than three times as much as the average U.S. wage, so it’s not as if state CIOs are hurting compared to the average American. But state CIOs make about one-third less than their private-sector counterparts who, according to NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson, make nearly $190,000 a year.
“We’ve been tracking this for six or seven years,” Robinson said. “The majority of state CIOs leave. They come from the private sector and when they leave, they go back to the private sector.”
It’s more than just a $60,000 salary cut, Robinson said. Officials working for private companies also get bonuses, stock options and a better benefits package than those working in the public sector. So who in their right mind would tolerate the smaller paycheck in exchange for a bunch of headaches?
As it turns out, few tolerate it for very long. The average tenure of a state CIO is 20 months, Robinson said. This is partially because, in most states, the CIO is an appointed position, meaning state CIOs typically lose their job when there’s a change in power. But it’s also because it’s a difficult job with comparatively low pay.
Jesse Rothstein, an associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of California at Berkeley, said it’s a case of simple economics. “If you pay less, you can’t get as competent or skilled a worker,” Rothstein said. That’s not to say there aren’t competent, skilled workers in government — there definitely are. But the fundamental economic incentives for the most skilled workers to stay in government are missing. If the incentives are in the private sector, that’s where the talent will go.
To some, this is a cold outlook. After all, money isn’t everything. What about the people who want to make a difference or those who view the world through a pair of government-issued, rose-colored glasses?
2011 State CIO Average Salary - $130,552
2008 State CIO Average Salary - $124,740
2011 Private Company CIO Average Salary - $210,300
2010 Private Company CIO Average Salary - $219,300
2009 Private Company CIO Average Salary - $247,900
2008 Private Company CIO Average Salary - $237,360
2007 Private Company CIO Average Salary - $185,240
2010 #1 Highest State CIO Salary - Wyoming - $194,400
2010 #2 Highest State CIO Salary - Virginia - $191,906
2010 #3 Highest State CIO Salary - Texas and California - $175,000
2010 #1 Lowest State CIO Salary - Hawaii - $83,040 - $118,212 range
2010 #2 Lowest State CIO Salary - Vermont - $87,776
2010 #3 Lowest State CIO Salary - Maine - $96,553
2011 State CIO Average Tenure - 1 year, 8 months
2011 Private Company CIO Average Tenure - 5 years, 2 months
Sources: NASCIO, 2011 State of the CIO report and 2010 The Book of the States.
Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, who served as New York’s state CIO for nearly four years before resigning in March, said salary wasn’t a big consideration when she took the position. “It’s about wanting to serve. You have to love technology and how technology can better serve the citizens,” she said. But looking at friends in the private sector who make seven figures, she said, forced her to examine why she took the position of CIO in the first place.
“It’s definitely a sacrifice when you look at opportunities in the private sector. You look at those temptations. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t,” Mayberry-Stewart said. But her desire to serve prevailed and she has no regrets, she said.
Having a fulfilling career requires more than money, Mayberry-Stewart said. “I think everybody wants to be where they can make a contribution and think what they do is appreciated,” she said. But just because you’re doing something in the public’s interest doesn’t mean it can’t also be self-serving; for many, being a public CIO is an investment in time.
It also looks good on a resumé, Mayberry-Stewart said. “CIOs typically do well when they leave [government service],” she said. “Very rarely do you hear a CIO isn’t able to find a position. Every career is a stepping stone to the next position.”
In Mayberry-Stewart’s case, leaving her post as New York’s CIO opened several options and she chose a position as CEO at Tri Group Holdings, a technology and behavioral health consulting firm. “It’s an opportunity for me to utilize all of my skills and for me to blend technology and health care,” she said. The chance to help provide medical care to the poor and disenfranchised who are suffering from illness is a wonderful option that may not have been possible without the connections that came with being a state CIO, Mayberry-Stewart said.
Not everyone has such an idealistic outlook, however. Former Alaska CIO Anand Dubey was clearly frustrated by his time in public service. “Two kinds of people do it. One type does it for the retirement,” he said. The second type of person, a category in which Dubey includes himself, does it as a one-time public service.
Having spent most of his career in technical and business consulting roles, Dubey said he was willing to accept a salary he normally wouldn’t consider for a change of pace and chance to give back. “I was sick and tired of waiting on the sideline and offering ideas,” he said. Dubey is also an immigrant and cited this as another reason he felt he owed the country a term of service.
“I knew ahead of time I wanted to do it for one term only,” he said. “When all was said and done, I felt relief. The relief is unbelievable. I literally watched everybody, including myself, age on the job.” New people came in, they were optimistic but they didn’t understand how difficult it was to change anything, Dubey said. “They truly believe they can jump in and run the bureaucracy. It takes a year or two to understand the challenge,” he said. And by then, time is up and they’re on their way out the door.
The technical challenges Dubey faced were almost simple, he said, compared to the red tape involved.
“The bureaucracy is so amazing there’s no way to describe it, no way to understand it unless you’re actually in it,” he said. That inertia made fixing even the smallest problem like pulling teeth, Dubey said, even though nearly everyone he worked with was highly competent.
“It’s almost impossible to truly accomplish anything,” Dubey said. “You have to focus on incremental change and continuing what the last guy did.”
Perhaps the issue is that those who come from the private sector aren’t ready for the reality of government work, especially when they also have to sacrifice a big chunk of salary. But state CIOs who’ve made a career of government work tend to have a different outlook.
Carlos Ramos, California’s newly appointed CIO, has worked in the public sector for 24 years. Ramos agreed that working for the government is taxing, but he takes a more patient view of progress. Ramos said it’s important for state CIOs to understand that government operates differently than a private company and that success depends on one’s ability to embrace collaboration and see the bigger picture.
While many CIOs are only visiting the public sector for a couple of years before they return to the private world, there are those like Ramos, who begin programs in one department and get promoted somewhere else, but their work doesn’t necessarily die when that happens. “I think the work I started in one area actually carries over very well, and I was able to continue it on a grander scale,” he said. “So I guess I wouldn’t look at it as a 20-month term.”
Those who stay in government longer may be likelier to see their efforts succeed, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for talent from the private sector. “I think it’s healthy to have a mix of private-sector experience and public-sector experience,” Ramos said. “You also need innovation. Having people come in here thinking like business people is a good thing.”
The issue of money returns, however, as attracting and retaining talent can be difficult, Ramos said. “Some of our most skilled technicians and engineers in our public safety communications office get picked off regularly,” he said. “I think, in some cases, a better compensation package would help us retain very critically needed and trained staff.”
But ultimately, the trials and tribulations of working for the government are a greater force than any salary, Ramos said. Offering more money wouldn’t be enough to entice people to stay. “If you’re coming into government or public service just for the money, you’re not going to last,” he said. “Ultimately you [must] have a passion for public service and a commitment to making a positive impact because the money’s only one part of it.” ¨
Colin Wood is a technology writer based in Folsom, Calif.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.