On a warm, sunny day in Sacramento, Calif., Cathilea Robinett sat on an outdoor patio adjacent to the city's convention center, looking calm and relaxed. Her quiet demeanor revealed nothing about the hectic schedule and grueling pace of work that has been the hallmark of her career since she became executive director of the Center for Digital Government in 1999. [Editor's note: The Center for Digital Government is a division of e.Republic, which publishes Government Technology's Public CIO.]
One reason Robinett is often on the road has to do with the extensive recognition of excellence the center bestows on state and local governments through its annual surveys and Best of the Web competitions. She personally hands out the awards around the country, recognizing states, counties and municipalities for their achievements in using technology to improve public service.
But on May 10, Robinett found herself on the receiving end for a change when she was honored by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) with its prestigious National Technology Champion Award.
"Her leadership with innovative programs like the center's Best of the Web awards and Digital Government Summits has been invaluable," said NASCIO President Teri Takai. "Because of Cathilea, we have a new landscape in this country where best practices are shared between a diverse range of public entities."
As a day's worth of events, speeches and meetings were about to get under way at the annual Government Technology Conference in California's state capital, Robinett took some time out to reflect on the award and what it meant.
"It was quite a switch to be the one to receive an award rather than be the one who gives one away," she said. "But this is extra special. I've dedicated my life to evangelizing for technology, so to be recognized by people in the public sector in this way is truly an honor and definitely a career high for me."
From Information to Imagination
In 1996, the center launched its Best of the Web competition, followed the next year by its Digital Survey of the States program. At that time, the online world was just dawning and the notion of recognizing government for its technological achievements might have seemed dubious to some.
For Robinett, however, the annual surveys and awards would be a way to put a badly needed spotlight on people and programs in government that deserved recognition, but were often overlooked by the mainstream press. Her instincts were right. Since they began more than 10 years ago, the digital surveys and Web awards have been covered by media throughout the country, including Time, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.
For those who know Robinett, it comes as no surprise that she's worked so hard to make these programs succeed. She cares deeply about the importance of public service, and the surveys and Web awards reflect her passion, as well as that of the center. "I believe that's what makes the center so different," she said. "We are a team of people, including many former practitioners from elected office and government IT departments, who really care about the public sector, about good public policy."
Ultimately the center is about the future, she continued. Whether it's helping state and local governments promote good policy, prepare for the millennial generation or transform bureaucracy into citizen-centric services, Robinett is characteristically upbeat about digital government. "I'm more excited about technology's impact on government than I have been in years," she remarked. "I'm really looking forward to the next 15 years."
Robinett compares the state we're in today with the Eisenhower administration when it decided to build the country's interstate highway system, a little more than 50 years ago. "We're at that same point of transition, so it's important to develop good public policy for the next generation, because we are done with the Information Age and have entered the imagination age, which is about ideas and knowledge."
It's About the People
The previous winners of NASCIO's Technology Champion Award have generally been elected officials. Robinett, who is the first woman to win the award, has never held elected office, but relishes the political side of government. "I've always been interested in [politics] since I was young," she said. Indeed, Robinett is at ease meeting with elected officials, whether it's former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm or speaking before government leaders at the United Nations or IT executives at the World Congress on Information Technology.
And she puts people at ease with her engaging and friendly personality. "I love going out and meeting folks, especially those who are driven to excel. I just love the people I meet in the public sector."
As lunchtime nears, Robinett's cell phone begins to ring, a reminder that technology keeps her constantly on the go. But it's OK for this technology champion. She has people to meet, a task she enjoys every working day.
With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.