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State of the public CIO

Jobs for city and state CIOs are super competitive, full of perks -- and require a real knack for justifying every dollar spent.

CIO Michael Taylor survived a merger and acquisition – but he still felt afloat. Worried about job security in the aftermath of an M&A, the former GlaxoSmithKline Plc., IT executive, Taylor took a leap many corporate CIOs never consider: he went to work for the government.

Today, as CIO for Pitt County, N.C., Taylor has transformed his department from one viewed as a "necessary evil" to one inundated with calls for help from other departments.

"It's almost done a 180," Taylor said. "Almost where we've got so many projects and initiatives that it's difficult to keep up with the requests." More and more, CIOs from California to Connecticut are attracted to the job security and unique challenges that government IT work provides.More than 200 resumes piled up in less than a month after the state of South Carolina started advertising for a CIO position on Aug. 4. A majority of the applicants come from the private sector, said Sam Wilkins, human resources director for the state.

"We expected to get a significant number," Wilkins said. " I don't know that we expected more than 200," Wilkins said. "The bulk of them, certainly more than half, are private sector folks who are applying. We have a great selection of folks with some really good skills."

Richard Bennett, of Scituate, Mass.-based public sector executive staffing firm Bennett Yarger Associates Inc., said it should be no surprise. Public sector CIO positions that did not exist five or ten years ago are finally receiving the same recognition as other government department heads, Bennett said.

"There's been a tremendous amount of change in the past five to seven years," Bennett said. "The public has become more accustomed to using technology. There's more pressure coming the other way. The public wants to use technology. Governments want to be able to respond to that."

Thomas Jarrett, CIO for the state of Delaware and president of the National Association of State CIOs, came to his current position from Bell Atlantic in September 2001. He said that government CIOs must be good at explaining IT initiatives to non-technical people.

"What we try to do is educate," Jarrett said. "I think where a lot of people go wrong is they get too technical. They get so impassioned about the technology that they forget to explain it in English."

For example, Jarrett wanted to upgrade a maxed-out mainframe. Rather than talking about megabytes per second and connection speeds, told the legislators controlling the budget, "we're running at 100% capacity and the wait time at the DMV might go from 10 minutes to 25 minutes." His project won quick approval from the state legislature.

Reasons to go public

A recent study from research firm Gartner Inc. estimated that 50% of government CIOs through 2010 who come from the private sector will leave their positions within 20 months. The typical profile will be a "tremendously qualified" individual seeking to make an impact and perform public service for a few years before returning to the private sector or retiring. A CIO taking a public sector position must be, "willing to accept less money, for an opportunity to do some creative and important things," Barrett said.

But the things that make the job such a challenge, like tying together the independent IT systems of the police department and the social welfare agency, are also what makes it appealing to private-sector CIOs looking to make a difference.

Taylor recently streamlined his county's emergency 9-11 dispatch service by integrating three separate databases into a single Windows platform, which reduces the dispatcher's response time.

Prioritization is key, said Diane S. Wallace, who became CIO for the state of Connecticut in February after spending 27 years at financial services firm Aetna, Inc.

"With the leanness of state funding you really have to focus on the right things because dollars won't go as far," she said. Many public sector agencies are panicked because their older, experienced workforce is getting to set to retire, while younger workers are hard to recruit because of a perception that working in the public sector means a smaller paycheck. (It often does, but government employees also usually have more job security – and, of course, paid state holidays.)

Teri Takai, state CIO for Michigan, said 30% of people in her department will be eligible for retirement in the next couple years. "That's going to be huge in terms of how do I bring the right skill sets in," Takai said, who held senior positions at Federal Mogul Corp., Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Ford Motor Co. Takai, who earns a quarter to a third of what she did in the private sector, was attracted to the job through the idea of performing public service in her home state and the strong backing of Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who nominated Takai for the position.

"I had never ever really contemplated being in a public service position and was not at all active in politics," Takai said. Conversations with Granholm and her staff convinced Takai she would be able to have a tangible impact.

"Because I have and have had so much opportunity, I felt like it was my time to really take this kind of role," Takai said.

Takai tells potential new hires that she can offer a unique chance to manage a large, complex IT environment much earlier in a person's career than the private sector would, Takai said. The aftermath of the bust means that Dorothy J. Smith, director of Information Systems for the Social Services Agency of Santa Clara County, Calif., expects to keep all her seats filled. But managing the people filling those seats remains a challenge. "It's more difficult to mange in public sector because you can't use pay raises, or bonuses to reward people who do well," Smith. "Plus, you're forced to keep people in the organization who are mediocre." At the same time, expectations for e-government services are rising. Five or six years ago, IT-centric government services like online tax payments and license plate renewals were rare.

"I think the expectation out of IT staff and government has been raised over the years," said, Taylor, of Pitt County. "Technology has become so prevalent in business and how they deliver service that it's not acceptable to come to you local government and have them say 'that's going to take five or ten days.' What we find is people have greater expectation in how we deliver service."

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