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Trading Places: What's It Like to Move from One Government Level to Another?

Five public CIOs who have made significant career changes talk about how they made the transition and use their previous experience in their current role.

No matter how talented they are, few government CIOs stay in the same position long-term. A 2013 Gartner survey found that the average tenure of a public-sector CIO is 3.4 years. It has become more common for CIOs to move through IT leadership positions in multiple layers of government, ranging from cities or counties to state agencies to cabinet-level posts. Each position offers learning opportunities that can be applied in other jurisdictions, even if the business processes, cultures and organization sizes are very different. For this article, Public CIO spoke to five leaders who have made significant career changes about how they made the transition and use the experience they gained in their current role.

Beth Niblock / CIO, Detroit

After 11 years as CIO of Kentucky’s Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, Beth Niblock was asked in 2013 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to join a team of top municipal government technology officials traveling to Detroit to consult with civic leaders on their vision for economic revitalization. Little did she realize that she’d soon adopt Detroit’s technology problems as her own. 

But on that White House-sponsored trip, Niblock talked to Mayor Mike Duggan about his vision for the city. Apparently he liked what he heard from Niblock because when he asked her to leave Louisville behind and come to Detroit, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

Duggan is very realistic about the issues facing the city, Niblock said. “He really had an appreciation for what strong IT can do and the benefits it can bring.” 

Joining a city in the midst of a bankruptcy, Niblock is leaning on her experience gained leading IT efforts in Louisville. She took that job just as the city and county governments were merging. “We were able to merge systems that had been going in two different directions into a single functioning system.” Niblock also helped launch the department’s current financial system and directed an upgrade to the 311 system. “The thing I am most proud of is the team,” she said. “They are a really strong group of people providing good service at a really low cost.” 

But none of that could adequately prepare Niblock for what greeted her in Detroit, where the issues were much more fundamental. “A majority of computers are more than 5 years old and don’t have standardized office productivity suites,” she said. “You can send somebody a document and they can’t open it because their version is so old.” 

A 10-year plan put together by an emergency manager includes approximately $125 million for IT projects, Niblock said. And although she realizes she can’t do it all at once, there is a whirlwind of activity taking place. Detroit is identifying a new financial management and human resources system, as well as upgrading the system for building safety, engineering and environmental department permitting. There also will be a new system for computer-aided dispatch. “We also have to focus on the fundamentals,” she said. “We have to make the infrastructure seamless by upgrading our network to make it more resilient and redundant.” 

Improving morale among IT employees is another big job. The IT department used to employ almost 200 people, but now has 34 staffers and 30 contractors. And while some parts of the job are the same as in Louisville, Niblock describes the situation as “very different,” adding that in Detroit, “it is all about empowering the team.” Her team is starting to have project successes improving core services that everyone in city government expects to work well. A recent example illustrates this upward trajectory: The mayor’s chief of staff told Niblock that she hasn’t thought about problems with email in a long time. “I said that’s a good thing. When I first came here, they were thinking about it a lot.” 

Jon Walton / CIO, San Mateo County, Calif. 

San Francisco has a spirit of innovation and risk-taking built into its DNA. Jon Walton, who served as CIO of San Francisco for almost six years, said he took some of that spirit with him when he moved down the peninsula to become CIO of San Mateo County in 2013. 

“San Francisco is known for not being afraid of going outside normal approaches. That is an energizing approach to solving problems,” Walton said. 

When he arrived in San Mateo County, Walton was eager to replace some aging systems, adding that county leaders and department-level staff have been very open to new strategies, like cloud, virtualization and crowdsourcing. 

Looking back on his time in San Francisco, Walton is most proud of having set up a good IT governance structure and community connectivity efforts like Wi-Fi projects, mobile apps, hackathons and open data.  

In fact, he said, San Mateo is piggybacking on San Francisco’s experience and success with open data, including getting the community involved in evaluating policies and tech tools. “We were able to learn from that experience and spin up an open data portal in San Mateo in under a year,” Walton said. “We are realizing immediate benefits. People are already using it.” 

San Francisco and San Mateo have interesting similarities and marked differences, Walton said. They have about the same population, around 800,000 people, and share a border. Yet San Francisco is a city and county. It is small geographically, about a third of San Mateo County’s size, yet owns everything in that space. And it has a very large governmental organization, with approximately 25,000 employees (compared to only about 5,000 in San Mateo County). 

“In San Francisco, when you have a problem to solve, you own the infrastructure, the rights of way, the public utilities,” he said. “The options to problem-solve are broad. The downside is that it is such a big governmental organization that it is difficult to get people together to solve issues quickly.” 

San Mateo County’s 744 square miles includes 20 cities, with areas ranging from urban high-tech to rural agricultural. Another key difference is that the county owns very little infrastructure. “I don’t own assets to solve problems,” Walton said, “so it causes me — in a good way — to have a lot of partnership conversations with school districts, cities and transportation authorities to figure out how we can come together on a shared vision.” 

The smaller size of the county’s government allows for a dynamic collaborative environment, he added. “For me it is easier to accomplish things because the size allows me to make decisions more quickly. That makes my job easier.” 

Adel Ebeid/ Chief Innovation Officer, Philadelphia 

In 2011, when Adel Ebeid was talking to Mayor Michael Nutter and other city leaders in Philadelphia about IT operations, he strongly suggested that the title CIO stand for chief innovation officer instead of chief information officer. 

“I felt that technology was changing to the point that CIOs really need to focus more on the innovation agenda and less on the back-office IT,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you ignore it. It just means you really need to solve it in nontraditional ways so that you end up with resources that you can dedicate to an innovation agenda.” 

Ebeid was interested in open data, civic innovation and closing the digital divide, all of which are external and public-facing. Traditional CIOs are normally internally focused on optimizing operations and rarely have time to engage in many of those initiatives. 

At the time of those discussions, Ebeid was not actively searching for a new job. He had plenty on his plate as CIO of New Jersey. But he was interested in testing out some of his ideas about greater citizen engagement. 

“At the state level, the CIO is several layers removed from the day-to-day constituent who consumes government services,” Ebeid explained. “Whereas there are almost no buffers or layers in between a CIO and citizens at the city level, so not only is the feedback more immediate, but the responses are much faster-paced. It is a much different experience.” 

Besides serving as New Jersey’s CIO for more than five years, Ebeid was chief operating officer for the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission for four years and CIO of the Department of Environmental Protection for 10 years. Looking back at the hundreds of IT projects he worked on, the ones that stand out are those that impacted peoples’ lives most directly. For instance, 15 years ago, New Jersey had the worst driver’s license in the country, he said. It was the only state left with a paper license. “After Sept. 11, the governor at the time gave a mandate to convert over 7 million licenses statewide to a digital license,” he said. The effort included changing the business process, ensuring the ID verification process was in place and transforming counter operations. “Those are the kinds of projects I want to be involved in. I want to hear the complaints and be part of the celebration. To continue on projects like that, I realized I needed to be on the local level.” 

Philadelphia’s KEYSPOT program, a coalition of community-based groups committed to bringing Internet access, training and technology to all communities throughout the city, is an example of the type of initiative Ebeid thrives on. The effort has launched 79 KEYSPOTS, offering a total of 847 workstations across Philadelphia. 

In making the move across the Delaware River, Ebeid learned not to listen to war stories and negativity and instead to focus on the glass being half full. He suggests that IT leaders be more inclusive. “CIOs need to spend time leading across. We tend to lead up or manage people who report to us, but we don’t spend as much time checking in with peers and colleagues and learning from what they do well.” 

Cathy Maras / CIO, Bexar County, Texas 

When Cathy Maras saw the job description for CIO in Bexar County, Texas, she realized they were looking for someone with the exact skills she had developed in 10 years as CIO of Cook County, Ill. “They wanted to centralize IT, which is what I had done in Cook County,” she recalled. “When I filed my application, I got a call from them within just a few hours.” 

Maras said she really enjoyed her time as CIO in Cook County, population 5.4 million, but the effort was sometimes exhausting because of how much organizational work was required. “When I arrived, we had no centralized IT organization. There was no network and not really a website,” she said. “No one had thought about Y2K until I walked in the door in March 1997. I had to develop the first IT strategic plan to bring Cook County into the 21st century.” 

A big part of her effort there was getting departments to collaborate by tying their technology infrastructure together. The work of the recorder of deeds, treasurer and assessor are all interrelated, but they all had separate databases of the same land. “No one had thought of how to use IT as an enabler,” she said, adding that bringing departments together for volume purchasing saved millions of dollars. 

Maras was intrigued by the opportunity to do many of the same things in Bexar County, especially since civic leaders were eager to consolidate and look for other efficiencies. Bexar County and the San Antonio region are growing exponentially, Maras said, yet the tax revenue wasn’t keeping pace, making technology an important part of the solution in addressing the needs of a growing citizenry. 

“How can we meet more citizen needs without growing employee numbers? My new bosses in county government are all business-minded. They realized technology enables the business. … They were looking to rationalize IT spend and also automate everything possible.” 

The size of the IT organization she manages now (140) is not that much different from the one she led in Cook County (180). But the funding mechanisms are different, and counties in Texas don’t have as many avenues to raise revenue. “IT funding is all about the business case,” Maras said. “If you have a good business case, they prioritize it.” 

There have been some hiccups. Bexar County was working on an integrated justice system when the software company building it, AMCAD, filed for bankruptcy protection. “We had a surety bond and are going out to the marketplace again,” Maras said. In the meantime, her team is building visual dashboards to make the legacy mainframe code come to life. 

Maras and her Bexar County team won a 2013 award from Computerworld Honors for their My Bexar Community Dashboard, an interactive app that allows users to click a location on a map or enter an address and bring up nine windows of jurisdiction information about that location.

On a personal level, she has had to get used to teasing about her Chicago accent. “I am trying to learn to say ‘y’all,’” she said. 

Jim Fowler / CIO, Kentucky

When he was hired as CIO of Kentucky in 2013, Jim Fowler brought years of experience as a CIO in both the public and private sectors. The biggest difference between private- and public-sector IT work, he found, involves procurement — a lesson he learned the hard way. In 2004, in his second week on the job as vice president of technology and information services at the New York City Transit Authority, he encountered a frustrating technical problem. He called some private-sector consultants he knew, who flew right out and helped solve the problem. “When I turned the invoice in, my controller said, ‘You can’t do that. You have to put it out to bid.’” 

Kentucky officials, including Gov. Steve Beshear, appreciated Fowler’s experience at Navistar and York International, as well as stints leading IT for transit authorities in Chicago and New York. But it was his most recent assignment leading an IT consolidation effort for New York City that was most appealing, because Kentucky was about to launch a consolidation initiative of its own. 

Two years in, Fowler reports that Kentucky’s consolidation is going extremely well, predicting completion in August. “Some of that success stems from lessons I learned in New York, where we weren’t nearly as successful.” 

The biggest lesson was to make sure you have strong executive support. Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued an executive order to start the consolidation, Fowler said, “but when we got pushback from agencies, they would go and plead their case and he would give them an exemption. … We ended up with an awful lot of exemptions.”

In Kentucky, not only does Fowler have the governor’s full support, but he also sits on the cabinet, which gives him a peer-level relationship with other cabinet members. “If there are pushbacks at the mid-department level, I have the relationships to make that go away,” he said.

The other lesson learned by the New York City consolidation was to re-badge employees at the beginning. “In New York we ended up fighting for every resource even after the consolidation was done,” he recalled. “Six months after we had finished working with the Sanitation Department, we were still fighting about how many headcounts should be transferred and what the cost relationships were.” In Kentucky, step one was to transfer all 228 IT employees whose title had something to do with infrastructure to the centralized department. “They knew they could be reassigned wherever their skill set was needed in the enterprise. That gave them an incentive to be more cooperative.”

Overall, Fowler has found making changes at the state level easier than it was in New York City. Beyond the consolidation, he’s enthusiastic about a portal for new businesses, called Kentucky Business One Stop, aimed at making it easier to open a business. The next step is to develop a one-stop citizen portal, he said.

Having worked in three different areas of government — transit, city and state —  Fowler has noticed some key differences: Transit has a very singular focus — moving people from point A to point B in the most effective and efficient way. The biggest issue you deal with is the weather. In the city, the focus is on providing services to the residents but at a very transactional level: water, clean streets, and police and fire protection. “You are dealing with everyday necessities, and there is not a lot of strategic IT going on,” he said. The state requires a much longer-range view. It is still providing services to the citizens, but through activities like road construction, education, worker retraining and health care. “It requires a much more strategic view of the citizen.”