CIOs Debate Pros, Cons of Public Service

Perspective changes as CIOs transition between sectors.

by / September 25, 2008
Liza Lowery Massey, Founder and CEO, The CIO Collaborative Photo courtesy of Liza Lowery Massey

Is life and work better when a public CIO joins the private sector? Can a private-sector CIO survive in the public sector? A half-dozen current and former public CIOs debated these and other questions on Tuesday at NASCIO's annual conference in Milwaukee.

Moderated by California CIO Teri Takai, one group of IT executives provided insight into what motivated them to leave government service for the private sector. Rick Webb, former CIO of North Carolina, talked about how change at the top (the governor was leaving) motivated him to end his three and a half years as state CIO. For Liza Lowery Massey, former CIO of Los Angeles, the reasons were more personal: A diagnosis of cancer led Massey to reset her priorities (she is now cancer free). Val Oveson, former CIO of Utah, said he was looking for a different perspective and decided he wanted to work with IT and government from the outside.

For the three current CIOs who had made the leap from private sector to public sector, they stressed the surprises and steep learning curves they encountered during their first months on the job.

Steve Edmonson described himself as "pretty naive" when he first entered public service as CIO of Ohio. "I thought I could make a big impact right away. Since then, I have learned patience. It's a matter of actually determining what to work on; I've learned you can't do it all at once."

For Kyle Schafer, CIO of West Virginia, the silos of government were the biggest barrier he faced when he left his private-sector job to work in the public sector. In addition, he found it hard to get used to the different pace of project implementation. "I thought I could present a plan and it would be adopted," he said, as the audience chuckled. Instead, he found the process more complicated.

John Landers, a former CIO for Filene's retail stores and now CIO of Rhode Island, also discovered his hard-charging work style didn't square with government's need for more deliberation. "I found government doesn't work as fast as I want to go. Now, I'm more collaborative."

But just as Landers found he had to change, he also tried to change the mindset in government. "I started holding a series of interviews, telling people there are no bad ideas; 'think outside of the box' has been my motto. That was hard for some to accept. Their reaction was to do the opposite, to toe the line. Trust is a big issue. I found trust is more easily gained in the private sector than the public sector."

Asked how they would advise new government CIOs who were used to working in the private sector, the panel of former IT executives shared their insights. Webb urged new CIOs to build a bridge with legislature in order to get things done. "Find your champions," he suggested. "We worked closely with the budget director, auditors and comptroller. Lots of private-sector CIOs come in and don't understand how [government] works. Once you lose the confidence of the legislature, you never get it back."

Massey pointed out that the job of government CIO is really about having the right attitude. "Expect to learn something new and expect it's going to be a steep learning curve. You have to accept that. I also recommend that you find good mentors," she added.

Despite the often harsh contrast between work as a CIO in the private and public sectors, as well as the much lower pay scale, all three current CIOs said they would remain in public service under the right circumstances.


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO
Platforms & Programs