A long-running joke among IT professionals is that CIO is short for “Career Is Over.” This dark humor often has rung true for state chief information officers. Those who ascend to a state CIO position are, on average, cast out within two or three years by a new governor or other political wind. This usually meant their public-sector career was finished. New governors rarely hired them, preferring someone from their inner circle or a candidate with private-sector credentials. Opportunities in cities, counties or higher education also were limited, as leaders of those institutions tended to pick a homegrown employee.

But times might be changing due to the tepid job market, the growing number of new tech-savvy governors and mayors, and increasing awareness that an experienced IT leader can help governments stretch lean budgets by driving efficiencies and cost savings. These factors and others are giving former state CIOs opportunities at other levels of government, where at one time they had little choice but to seek private-sector jobs.     

During the past 12 months, several high-profile state CIOs took city or county positions. “It is unusual,” said Doug Robinson, executive director of NASCIO. “It’s not unusual to have what I would call ‘large urban’ city and county CIOs go to the state level. We saw that in the last couple of election cycles. But it is unusual for [state CIOs] to go back to — or at least consider — positions in the local level.”

The Job Search

One of the nation’s longest-serving state CIOs suddenly found himself looking for work last year. After 15 years as CIO of South Dakota, Otto Doll learned that the state’s new governor, Dennis Daugaard, wouldn’t retain him. Perhaps it was time. Doll had already bucked long odds when in 2002 former Gov. Michael Rounds retained him. Because of the lagging economy, Doll didn’t see as many corporate openings as there might have been in the past. “What I found was the IT industry was still retrenching, and there was a lot of talk toward, ‘Well, why don’t you hang your shingle, and we might consider you for a consultant contract, rather than a full-time position.’” There wasn’t a lot of movement in the private sector.

So Doll began applying for jobs in academia. He was surprised by the number of IT openings that colleges and universities were advertising — and that he was receiving strong consideration. As recently as five years ago, Doll never thought he would have had a shot. Now, more university presidents are looking for experienced CIOs, he said.

Doll decided to also look at the municipal route. “Local governments, whether they’re counties or cities, feel very comfortable that someone who has been a state CIO is, in a lot of respects, someone who deals with the same issues of governance and being a civil servant,” he said. Doll eventually took the job as CIO of Minneapolis, which he said is a good fit because he led a centralized IT agency in South Dakota that resembles the city’s technology department.

Recently other CIOs have followed similar paths. Greg Wass left as CIO of Illinois in 2010 on his own accord, choosing to become CIO of Cook County, Ill., the nation’s second-most populous municipal government, which includes Chicago. Wass already was familiar with Cook County’s IT needs. As state CIO, he rose early each morning — before leaving for his day job — to write a technology road map for the county at the behest of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan research organization that aims to improve statewide government services. The county was mired in a $500 million budget hole, and Wass saw the chance to enact reforms and improve county transparency.

In like fashion, New York State Deputy CIO Rico Singleton said he wasn’t interested in working for a new governor, so he accepted Baltimore’s CIO position. Being one of the younger state-level CIOs in the U.S., Singleton said working for a city appealed to him because he thought it would be more stable and afford a longer tenure than a state-appointed job. Although he arrived in Baltimore five months ago, Singleton said he continues to field unsolicited calls from local governments interested in hiring him. For the first time in a long time — or maybe ever — state CIOs are in demand at other levels of government.

Local Advantages

One might think that these former state-level CIOs are putting themselves at a disadvantage by walking on unfamiliar turf. Instead, they see the chance to gain ground.

For Wass, the opportunity to help Cook County move past its longtime reputation as a haven for corruption proved too tempting to pass up. “From a technology perspective,” he said, “I looked at things we have done at the state level in terms of server consolidation, virtualization, shared services and charge-backs.” Wass realized he could model his reform agenda for Cook County after the modernization program he had implemented for the state.

And with his prior experience, he hopes to accomplish the county version more quickly. Cook County is a large government, with 25,000 public employees, but that’s only half the headcount of the state government’s work force. Wass is already seeing results: enacting social media and transparency programs in the county that he said took longer to do at the state level. Now he’s moving on to ERP, which proved difficult to attempt as state CIO.

Funding at the county level is also a change. Both Cook County and Illinois have faced their share of difficulties, but the state budget challenge is of a different order. At one point, Illinois was dealing with a $13 billion deficit, and those troubles forced budget cuts and tax increases this year. “The state is still several billion dollars in the red, and that kind of fiscal crisis tends to overwhelm everything. Any new initiatives are held up,” Wass said. By contrast, in Cook County, he has funding to invest in new technology.

In Baltimore, Singleton is also still adjusting to a smaller government after starting his career in Ohio and New York state positions. “The thing I’m enjoying most so far is I have much more flexibility and can get my hands around things and am able to transform and move the agenda forward,” he said. In New York, it took several months just to schedule a meeting to bring everyone together at the same table.

He marvels at the number of technology issues the city must address that are outside the data center — like citizen complaints through 311, snow removal and public safety. Those typically aren’t priorities for state government.

Singleton thinks one reason state CIOs may be hesitant to transition to a local government is that they are perceived to lack day-to-day experience in an operational environment. While there’s a learning curve, Singleton has moved quickly by announcing OpenBaltimore, the city’s public data catalog.

Wass said it’s that kind of direct engagement that he finds satisfying in his new capacity. As a county CIO, he’s much closer to the beneficiaries of programs like Cook County’s new blog and social media outreach. He gets to see immediate results and make an immediate impact on people’s everyday lives. “Whereas at the state, there is more room between the state services and the actual recipients of those services,” he said.

More Alike Than Different

Even with their differences, state and local governments aren’t a world apart. When Tom McQuillan became deputy CIO of New Mexico after wrapping up his 25-year career as IT director of Grand Rapids, Mich., he constantly noticed similarities between the two experiences.

For example, states and municipalities are both working on broadband coverage and adoption. In New Mexico, improving broadband coverage is challenging because of the state’s combination of large land area and low population density. McQuillan’s work on a grant proposal for the federal government’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program helped New Mexico get nearly $38 million to improve microwave tower sites and add backhaul. The money was also used to help Santa Fe and Albuquerque become early adopters of the national 700 MHz radio system.

After a year in New Mexico, McQuillan resigned. The political landscape was changing in the Southwest, and he sensed that the election would result in a party switch that would make his appointed position a likely target for turnover. McQuillan’s intuition proved correct when Susana Martinez, a Republican, took over for the term-limited Democrat, Bill Richardson. Since then, all five positions in the New Mexico Department of IT, including McQuillan’s former job, he said, have been replaced. McQuillan got out ahead, leaving in June 2010 to become CIO of Prince William County, Va.

His focus has reverted to long-term planning rather than short-term gains. At the local level, it isn’t an option to make broad modifications, as sometimes occurs in states, and then not be there to see those changes come to fruition. Also, job security is less of a concern than it was in New Mexico. “At the local level, when you’re the IT director for 25 years, you had to live with the consequences of the decisions you made over that time,” he said.

McQuillan added that working for New Mexico state government made him a better municipal CIO. “We’re running our public safety radio network here in Prince William County, and I’ve gained some valuable insight and experience [in New Mexico] that I think would be very difficult for a CIO to have unless they grew up on the radio side of the business as a technician.”

McQuillan’s career arc — local to state, and then back to local — reinforced his belief that the two government levels share more commonalities than differences. Both jobs deal with procurement and regulations, budgeting and funding, strategic plans, and identifying the needs of citizens and businesses. The big difference at the state level is that cabinet secretaries — and some CIOs — typically work from their own power bases and report directly to their governors. “When you get down to the county level,” McQuillan said, “more often than not, you’re going to be dealing with an enterprise IT operation where you have more control on strategy direction and planning, and more leverage with the county executive.”

That governance structure is key, Wass said, because states and municipalities continue to struggle with budget issues, and funds are controlled differentlyin each situation. In Illinois, the governor is responsible for about 80 percent of state spending, he said, while the Cook County board president controls only 20 to 30 percent of total spending; the rest is in the hands of other elected officials, such as the sheriff, court clerk and assessor. Wass wonders if it will be more difficult for him to achieve buy-in at the county level for enterprise architecture and cloud computing when power is distributed among elected officials.

Politics don’t go away no matter where you are, so when Doll arrived in Minneapolis, he didn’t believe that working for a city would necessarily be a path of lesser resistance. “I never looked at it from the standpoint that it was easier to do things, because Minneapolis is ‘smaller.’ Because in my particular case, a lot of places out there are as large or larger than South Dakota.” Doll’s focus was to keep a public-sector job, and he believed it was highly unlikely that another state would hire him.

In his new job, he does many of the same tasks that he did for years in South Dakota. He continues to identify his IT organization’s strengths and weaknesses; is preparing next year’s budget; and trying to figure out how the city could better utilize its municipal broadband network. He’s even found the city’s Public Works Department to be similar to the state Department of Transportation. “The programs themselves might be somewhat different, the magnitude of them might be somewhat different,” Doll said. “But when you really get down to [it], to me, state and local each can have just as many challenges and accomplishments.

“Ultimately we’re all dealing with the same technology.”

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor