May 13, 2011 By Matt Williams
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.”
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.
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.
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