The path from private to public sector CIO
Denver City and County building
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The path from private to public sector CIO

Cindy Waxer — April 2015

A career switch to the public sector can be a big culture shock for a business CIO. But with the right diplomatic skills, the challenge of transforming government IT for the digital age can be hugely rewarding.

As former IT director of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Frank Daidone knows what it means to be thrown into the fire. During his eight-year tenure, Daidone played a key role in steering the $4-billion US fast-food chain through double-digit revenue growth, the addition of thousands of new outlets, a wave of international expansion and a company-wide IT system overhaul. But nothing prepared Daidone for leaving his high-powered post in the private sector to become the CIO for the City and County of Denver, Colorado in early 2013.

“It was certainly a culture shock,” he recalls. “There was no energy in the office. People were heads-down in their cubicles and there wasn’t a whole lot of chatter. It didn’t need to be that way and we started making some aggressive changes pretty quickly.”

Frank Daidone Denver CIO
Frank Daidone, Denver CIO
Today, Daidone runs the Denver administration’s Technology Services Agency in much the same way he guided Chipotle through years of meteoric growth. Significant changes include implementing a bottom-up communication model so that programs meet the specific needs of IT employees; overhauling the agency’s organizational structure to better engage City and County staff in technology services; boosting investment in technical skills; and spearheading innovative initiatives such as providing the city’s police force with access to a high-speed 4G LTE network.

Daidone introduced office perks as well: ping-pong tables, coffee makers, filtered water, brightly painted offices and a casual dress code. “We’ve created a culture here that’s more like a start-up,” he says.

Yet change doesn’t always come easy for those CIOs who choose to migrate from the more lucrative private sphere into public service. A third of Daidone’s 300-strong workforce left or were replaced during his first 18 months at the helm. In addition to high churn, many newly installed public sector CIOs encounter resistance to organizational change, political complexities and difficulty in recruiting talent — all of which can thwart a CIO’s ability to enhance the delivery of a government agency’s IT services. And because public sector CIOs often earn significantly less than they would in the private sector, the job can sometimes seem thankless.

“The majority of private-sector people that come in to the public sector don’t survive well,” warns Glenn Alexander. Alexander is CIO at Canada’s Champlain Local Health Integration Network (CLHIN), which plans, coordinates and funds government health services across province of Ontario. Alexander should know — he spent years in the private sector with companies including IBM and pharmacy technology services provider Rx Canada before becoming CIO of CLHIN in 2007.

However, for those who do weather the storm, the role of public sector CIO offers enormous opportunities, from ushering outdated IT infrastructures into the 21st century to improving the lives of millions of citizens. In fact, many government IT organizations around the world (from the US to Europe to Japan) are slowly emerging from being bastions of legacy systems and meagre budgets into places where public sector CIOs are able to drive innovation and spur collaboration — provided they have the right mix of personality and patience.
What it takes to make it

More than IT skills or political connections, the key to a successful career as a public sector CIO is “a sense of mission,” according to Tim Cook. Cook is global co-head of Russell Reynolds Associates’ cyber security practice and is responsible for recruiting seasoned CIOs at the executive recruitment agency’s operation in London.

Says Cook: “The people who are drawn to these roles [from commercial organizations] are not attracted to them because of the salary. Whatever they’re doing in the public sector, they’re doing for the public good.”

In the case of Alexander, the prospect of “improving the lives of people” compelled him to stray from his career path as a consultant in IT services to join the ranks of government. “Making your community better and the lives of those around you better has got to jazz you up,” he says. “If it doesn’t, then you might as well go back into business and focus on making a profit.”

“As a public sector CIO, you get things done through persuasion and influence rather than just direction.”

Another critical ingredient for success is the power of persuasion. Since taking on the role of public sector CIO, Alexander has spearheaded a number of large, complex initiatives including the deployment of a shared IT environment where seven regional hospitals can now swap electronic patient records and share workflows for greater efficiency and more effective management. Other endeavors include launching a diagnostic imaging project that connected more than 60 hospitals throughout the province with MRI, CT and nuclear medicine capabilities.

Glenn Alexander CIO CLHIN
Glenn Alexander, CIO of CLHIN

Whereas pulling rank in the private sector often gets the job done, Alexander says the public sector requires a more nuanced approach. “You have to sell your ideas and you have to be well-connected [in the agency],” he says. “That’s one of the more difficult things for a private-sector person to get adjusted to — coming into an environment where they have less authority but more to do, and where they have to engage the community.”

Cook agrees: “The very best public CIOs are individuals who are strong at delivery and team leadership but actually are really good at influencing, shaping and collaborating. In the public sector, you have to get things done through persuasion and influence rather than just direction.”

Thin margins, thick skin
Endless amounts of patience can also come in handy. Just ask Andy Nelson. An associate with London-based consulting group Kemp Little, Nelson has held several high-profile IT leadership roles in the UK, including CIO for the Ministry of Justice, CIO for the Department of Work and Pensions and overall UK Government CIO. Throughout his career as a public sector CIO, Nelson (who earlier worked in business IT for GE Capital, Asda and Royal Sun Alliance) says he had to make some “radical” moves that required “cutting headcount and attacking budgets” — a tall order that required him to navigate through layers of government committees and ministerial offices. “Trying to drive fundamental change [in public sector IT] is very challenging,” says Nelson. “Even though the senior civil service in the UK has some really smart, committed people, they get quite skeptical, if not cynical, about change.”

Public sector CIOs are also typically held to a higher level of accountability than their private sector counterparts. Whereas private CIOs get to field concerns from investors and other business stakeholders, federal and state CIOs are ultimately answerable to taxpayers — and that puts them in the media spotlight.

“Newspapers are all over it when something goes wrong,” says Carlos Ramos, director and state CIO of California, who in a previous life headed a technology consulting practice. In addition to bad publicity, Ramos says a high degree of public scrutiny can make many public CIOs risk-averse when it comes to experimenting with new technologies. “In the private sector, if you take on a technology initiative and it doesn’t work out for you, that’s just part of R&D,” says Ramos. “In government, there’s a pretty low tolerance for failure. For the most part, you have to get it right first time.”

All of which can put enormous pressure on the day-to-day life of a public sector CIO. Whereas “there’s an acceptance” in the private sector for projects to become derailed every now and again, Cook at Russell Reynolds points out that “in the public sector, it’s not acceptable for there to be failure in these big IT programs” without painful public scrutiny.
Calling all future public sector CIOs

Unfortunately, a high degree of accountability over failed projects may discourage some technology professionals from venturing into the public domain, which is why CIOs like Daidone are taking new and creative steps to recruit top talent.

These days, Daidone personally takes the time to conduct one-on-one interviews with candidates in order to explain the government agency's unique culture and IT environment. It’s an extra, persuasive step in the recruiting process that ensures the agency can access the right skills. The Denver government has even made a slick promotional cartoon video to show prospective employees what it’s like to work for the agency — a marketing ploy taken straight from the pages of private-sector recruiters.

Carlos Ramos CA CIO
  Carlos Ramos, California CIO

Ramos, on the other hand, is betting on a series of new and exciting IT projects to attract suitably qualified candidates who might be the public sector CIOs of the future. He points to the California Conservation Corps (CCC), the state’s environmental work program for young people, and its Corpsmember Recruiting System (CoRE) as a good example. The CCC is the oldest and largest conservation corps program in the US but it was saddled with a cumbersome, paper-based legacy system that required applicants to physically travel to a CCC office to fill out a paper form, and a CCC recruiter to manually enter the data.

In just three short months, the CCC replaced its age-old system with a cloud-based online recruitment tool that lets candidates review program details and apply for positions anytime, anywhere. Built on the platform, CoRE has quadrupled the number of applications the CCC receives, while saving the agency significant amounts of money. Such a project “demonstrates that government can be responsive and complete projects quickly, that we can make use of modern technology and we can appeal to the millennial generation,” says Ramos.

Projects that contribute to the betterment of society, such as conservation efforts, are also helping government agencies convince today's youth that it’s worth leaving a hot start-up for a government position. Says Ramos: “Many millennials are more interested in having an impact on their world than titles and status symbols like a nice office or a big paycheck. That’s something government can appeal to. You can come in here and, in short order, impact millions of people’s lives.”

In fact, according to a global study commissioned by communications specialist MSL Group, 78% of millennials recommend a company to their peers based on the company’s involvement with society, and 51% said they want to get personally involved in making the world a better place.
Making allowances for innovation

Moreover, the journey from private to public sector today does not necessarily mean dealing with ever-shrinking budgets. Some agencies are implementing performance-driven programs that are fuelled by success. For example, Denver’s Peak Performance initiative ensures that IT projects receive continued funding based on their ongoing performance.

That’s not to suggest, however, that seasoned private-sector CIOs are banging down the doors of public agencies to exchange their stock options and expense accounts for a role in government. But as agencies continue to innovate around digital government, test new ways of attracting talent and look to start-ups for organizational inspiration, a growing number of technology leaders will be more likely to pursue government careers.

First published April 2015
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