10 Guiding Principles for Public Sector IT Workers

The former CIO of Virginia Beach, Va., shares 10 tips on how to run an efficient, successful IT organization.

I’ve learned many lessons in my 32 years in city government—the first half in the planning department and the last half in IT. I’ve spent the past few years focusing on e-government initiatives, and last year, our city, Virginia Beach, was awarded first place in the 2004 Digital Cities Survey by the Center for Digital Government.

Here are 10 management principles that have guided me—and still guide me—as I take on my new role as vice president of IT for Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia.

1. Give priority to the basic needs. It sounds obvious, but systems have to be up and available. You have to know what’s important. You shouldn’t venture into innovative stuff unless you execute well on the basics.

2. Stay out of politics. The way I dealt with politics was not to be political. You have to work well with everybody. I’ve always stayed focused on what’s best for citizens.

3. Make information technology understandable to city leaders. Don’t overwhelm the leaders by being too technical. Present your IT plan or proposal in a way that makes them feel comfortable asking you questions. Have solid data and recommendations as backup, so they understand what you’re proposing and can relate it to citizens and services.

4. Use a multipronged approach to gain the skills you need. Find appropriate training programs for existing employees, and hire people with new skill sets. If it’s a specialized skill that you need only once a year, such as security design, you can outsource it.

5. Make purchasing decisions based on business needs. When department heads come to me and say, “I want to buy this,” I always ask, “What are you trying to accomplish from a business standpoint? We already might have a solution, so you might not need to buy anything.”

I make them state the business needs up front. Then we go from there and figure out what the return on investment will be.

6. Work closely with procurement officials. Understand what you want and how it fits in strategically, then work with the purchasing department to get the best price. Develop a good relationship with the procurement staff, and take an interest in improving their systems and meeting their needs. That way, they will understand the IT side and what you are trying to accomplish with other departments.

7. Identify weaknesses and make improvements. Conduct a benchmarking exercise to compare yourself to other governments. We didn’t know which areas we needed to concentrate on. So we contracted with a consultant and found that we did a good job at keeping costs low, but we weren’t as efficient on project management and help desk support. So we made improvements in those areas. Developing a list of your strengths and weaknesses enables you to build an effective IT strategy.

8. Keep expectations realistic. I’m big on meeting expectations and on not overselling technology. Managing expectations is tough, but it’s important to set realistic goals.

9. Tell your own bad news first. If you have a project that’s run into a problem, don’t cover it up. Explain what happened and then offer plans and suggestions to correct it. That approach builds credibility, and most people will give you a shot at making things right.

10. Stay visible. I like to be personally connected with the staff—to know what their job challenges are and what they’re up against personally. I try to be there for people.

DAVID SULLIVAN spent 32 years in city government.

Oct 31 2006