In Like Flynn

A former state CIO is running for Congress. Will others follow suit?

by / March 2, 2005
As CIOs have risen up the bureaucratic pecking order over the last decade to offices and titles ever closer to the CEO, one step remains -- running for elected office. It's not that CIOs aren't political -- many of them owe their positions to political patronage, and they know the ropes. It's just that none of them seemed to want to get into that branch of politics.

One former state CIO, John Thomas Flynn, is taking that final step.

Bona Fides
Flynn -- vice president of advisory services for the Center for Digital Government, owned by e.Republic, which also publishes Government Technology magazine -- has been around the public-sector block.

Former President Ronald Reagan appointed Flynn executive director of the Federal Regional Council, a White House intergovernmental coordinating organization, in 1982. During Reagan's second term as president, Flynn was appointed New England regional director of the U.S. Department of Labor. He continued this role in the first Bush administration through 1989.

At the state level, Flynn was selected as Massachusetts' first CIO in 1994 by then-Gov. William Weld. Two years later, Flynn headed west to do it again -- serving as California's first CIO at then-Gov. Pete Wilson's request.

He was lucky enough to get the job just before the Y2K frenzy hit state government, becoming the state's default year 2000 guru and holding the responsibility of coordinating remediation of the state's 3,000 computer systems. In 1997, Flynn was elected president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

In early January, he announced his intent to run for a vacant seat in the House of Representatives, joining 12 other candidates in a race to fill the 5th Congressional District in California. The seat is vacant due to the untimely death of Democratic Rep. Robert Matsui.

Flynn doesn't have a lot of time to get his message out to potential voters -- if none of the 12 candidates receives more than 50 percent of the votes in a March 8 special election, a runoff election between the top vote getters will be held in early May.

Unknown Entity
Flynn said he understands that a CIO running for office won't mean a lot to the average voter, but the legislative branch at the state and federal levels does need more technologically aware members.

He said comments in a news story from a leading committee chairman in Congress stating that approximately 10 people in Congress really care about the Federal Information Security Management Act indicate a lack of interest in issues such as cyber-security. "That's probably the same percentage in most of state government," Flynn said.

"Unfortunately people don't get elected because they say, 'I'm going to go in there and change technology around,'" he continued, "because what don't we do now that isn't touched, positively or negatively, by the success -- or lack thereof -- of information systems?"

Flynn said technology will be a central part of his campaign.

"I just think there are better ways we could be doing things -- breaking that digital divide, utilizing technology to better serve the American people, whether it's issuing food stamps, hooking up seniors with prescription drug programs or finding jobs for people," he said. "We just don't do it, and it's a combination. It's the federal level, the state level and the local level."

A former state CIO holding a congressional seat could make things a bit easier for states as they work with Congress to solve IT problems impacting government, said Tom Jarrett, CIO of Delaware and president of NASCIO.

"I would hope it would have an impact, given the fact that someone with that kind of background understands a lot of the things that we in the states are trying to deal with," Jarrett said. "I think it would be very valuable. Having said that, there's also the reality that you're just one of more than 400 members of the House."

NASCIO would always like to see a higher level of technological familiarity in Congress, he said, because every new member with an increased awareness of IT issues helps chip away at the lack of technological knowledge.

Flynn's decision is clearly a personal one, Jarrett said, and doesn't necessarily mean a slew of current and former CIOs will suddenly get a yen to jump into the political circus.

"I have no qualms in saying it's not something I would do," Jarrett said. "Since I've been here, this is the first one that I'm aware of. But there are some CIOs who came the other way -- like Val Oveson, who was lieutenant governor of Utah before he was CIO."

Jarrett said he sees this event as more the exception than the rule, especially since many CIOs are coming into state government from the private sector, and those CIOs aren't exactly enamored with the public sector.

"As we've seen, a lot of them go back to the private sector because they struggled with the dynamic within a government-type process," he said. "It's just very different. Unless you've spent time in it and understand it, I just don't see where a lot of them are going to jump up and say, 'Hey, this is great. I think I'll run for office!'"
Shane Peterson Associate Editor