(Used with permission from the November issue of Public CIO)
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and I went to college together.
Actually we both attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. Warner graduated in 1977 and I finished in 1979. We may have crossed paths, but I don't recall meeting him and it's unlikely we pursued the same academic interests. I spent most of my time drifting through literature and art history courses, not quite sure what to do when I graduated. I'm assuming Warner was a bit more focused, since he went on to become a multi-millionaire venture capitalist and then the governor of Virginia.
Despite his handicap as a one-term governor, Warner -- a Democrat -- has created a buzz among state leaders for his far-reaching and rather successful efforts at reforming state government and its fiscal policies, while working with a Republican-controlled Legislature. That buzz is now being heard, albeit faintly, at the national level.
Warner represents a new trend in government leadership by being ambitious about moving government from the Industrial Age into the Information Age. In addition to overhauling the state's tax policies, Warner used technology as the wedge to dismantle the hardened silos of Virginia's state operations. He was one of the few governors to create a secretary of technology to direct the policy side of IT, as well as a CIO position for program management. Warner set up an IT governance board, similar to what Fortune 50 companies use, and most importantly, he restructured IT into a single unit.
Others, including Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, have also moved in this direction. But I would argue that no governor has gone as far as Warner in making IT an integral part of government.
In his latest push, Warner hasn't asked the Legislature for funds needed to revamp and modernize its infrastructure and business applications. He wants to outsource these mission-critical pieces of government to the private sector, without laying off IT staff -- something Connecticut forgot to guarantee when trying to outsource its IT operations several years ago. It's a radical step, and if it works, could further blur the line between the public and private sectors.
Now that Warner is finishing his term in Virginia, he may have his eyes on the national stage. It remains to be seen whether the spotlight will follow him there, but initial reports look positive. In July, he was the featured speaker at the National Governors Association annual meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, and a keynote speaker at the Democratic Leadership Council annual meeting.
The national press has also taken note. The Wall Street Journal called him a "rising comet" among potential presidential candidates for 2008. And when The New York Times criticized the weak efforts of Congress to create jobs, the paper said, "Instead of trying to turn back time, politicians in Washington should be following the very good example being set by Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia."
The 2008 presidential election is still a long way off, but it is gratifying to know that one of the chief contenders right now is a tech-savvy leader who understands the challenges public-sector CIOs face and the benefits they can deliver when given the support they need to make IT a valued asset in government.