INSURANCE EXECUTIVE NICOLE Fontayne was so upset by the state of her corner of the Union that she quit her job and moved—to the public sector. She doesn’t regret the move one bit. Living in Detroit in the mid-1990s, Fontayne was deeply distressed by the city’s widespread poverty, high crime rates and decaying streets. With the city government awash in red ink, Fontayne saw little hope for the future—until an energetic new mayor arrived with a vision to revitalize the city.
Fontayne, who managed business and IT operations at insurance provider Amerisure, was inspired by the mayor and offered to help. She was quickly hired as the city’s IT director.
When she started, the state of technology was antiquated: The city was still using rotary phones, and voice mail was nonexistent. Few workers had computers. The human resources department used typewriters and carbon paper. “I found an organization that had missed four generations of technology,” Fontayne recalls.
While the mayor set about attracting new economic investments, Fontayne overhauled the city’s technology infrastructure, bringing in new equipment, such as financial management software and videoconferencing, to improve employee productivity.
“Rebuilding the infrastructure was engaging work,” recalls Fontayne, who is now CIO of Florida’s Broward County. “It was exciting and rewarding to drive around the city and see the impact on services.”
Fontayne is one of many city, county and state CIOs who came to government after acquiring extensive IT experience in the private sector. At a time when government budgets are dwindling and e-government and cybersecurity have taken on a new urgency, private sector executives who understand technology and have track records of succeeding while staying on budget are valuable assets in government.
Private sector executives who switch to the public life—many sacrificing higher-paying jobs—do so because of the challenges government CIO jobs present and because they want to serve their communities. Initially, they are taken aback by the levels of bureaucracy, the financial constraints, and the scrutiny by elected officials and the public. But hey quickly adapt as they tap into the technology, business and managerial skills they cultivated in the private sector.
“You can’t come in here, run into problems and start criticizing the public sector,” cautions Donald Fleming, who became Oregon’s CIO in 2003 after three decades in the private sector, including top IT positions at Allied Signal, General Electric and the Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. “You have to recognize that you must work within the system. If you can handle that, you will be very effective.”
Leaving the Private Sector
After nearly 15 years in the private sector, including stints at Digital Equipment and the Georgia Lottery, Marilyn Delmont views her decision to first become CIO of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and now CIO of Chandler, Ariz., as a natural result of her upbringing.
“I did volunteer work for the church all the time,” Delmont says. “My mom would visit sick people and would cook and clean their homes. I was there with her, so it’s natural for me.
“I was drawn to MARTA—and now Chandler—because I’ve always believed in giving something back. The public sector does not offer top-dollar salaries, but it’s not just about money. You are making a difference in somebody’s life.”
Since her arrival in the Phoenix suburb two years ago, Delmont has increased its e-government services and plans to upgrade the networks in police and fire stations.
Family upbringing also played a role in the decision of Jay Brummett, chief technology officer (CTO) of Ogden City, Utah, to do volunteer work throughout his life. But it wasn’t until he lost friends and acquaintances in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that he gave up a successful career as a venture capitalist to work in local government.
“In any private sector business, you focus on whatever service or product your company makes, and a lot of times you don’t see the impact that has on a community,” says Brummett, who resigned as a senior partner from Utah Capital Ventures. “At Ogden IT, we support police, fire and other public services. We have a direct impact on the lives of our 80,000 residents.”
Adjusting to Public Life
Many CIOs who switched from the world of commerce to the world of government say the government’s reputation for elevating bureaucracy to a near-art form is true. They also acknowledge that one of the toughest parts of the transition is the cultural change. In the private sector, executives make decisions and everyone falls in line; in government, the watchword is consensus building.
“You have to make sure your story is communicated accurately,” Broward County’s Fontayne says. “You need to develop the support and get the votes you need to get the job done.”
Oregon’s Fleming says his colleagues have coached him through the transition to public life. “I’ve never been a patient person, but I’ve learned a lot here,” he says. “They’ve helped me understand the mechanisms of government.”
In addition to using their technology expertise to solve IT problems, CIOs also use the management and business skills they developed in the private sector to change the culture in their new jobs. One California agency CIO, who declined to be named, said his IT workers were uninspired when he started the job, and communication among co-workers was poor.
The former IT executive at a private sector firm met with employees individually and asked what they wanted to accomplish in their careers and how he could help them meet their goals. “I found out what their passions were, did career planning and tried to please each one of them,” he says. The CIO also used his experience teaching management training classes to develop a management training program to prepare candidates for future job openings.
CIOs admit that government is sometimes more concerned with processes—how things are run—than with performance and results. Private sector IT executives who made the switch to government are trying to change that.
Brummett is connecting agency databases in an effort to tear down barriers between government departments and improve Ogden City’s services. For example, before utility meter readers walk through neighborhoods, they could tap into animal control’s database to see how many licensed dogs they might encounter on their routes. Safety would be improved, and meter readers could increase city revenue by reporting unlicensed dogs, he explains.
However, the similarities between the public and private sectors are greater than the differences, say transitioned CIOs. The financial and customer service pressures that drive the private sector are also present in the public sector, Oregon’s Fleming says.
Like private companies that must maximize profits, governments must use sound business judgment and reduce spending—and that includes better use of IT resources. Whether as customers or citizens, the public today demands a broad range of efficient online services, and they don’t want to stand in line to update their car registration or pay other fees. “Citizens are demanding more customer-oriented convenience from an efficient, cost-effective government,” Fleming points out.
The IT execs also make clear that the bureaucratic label applied to government does not apply to government IT workers. “If we need a certain skill set, our people are dedicated and hit the books to learn it, if that’s what they need to do,” says Arizona’s Delmont.
To Stay or Go?
These CIOs concur that they’re happy at their current jobs, but Ogden City’s Brummett and Oregon’s Fleming concede that they eventually would consider a return to the private sector.
Brummett, a turnaround specialist for financially struggling companies, believes he’s turned Ogden City’s IT department around. In two years, he’s steered the department from a $1.8 million deficit back into the black. He’s reduced data storage costs by installing a state-of-the-art storage area network and slashed help-desk costs by installing desktop management software that allows for centralized administration of computers.
Although Brummett still works a lot of hours, the job has improved his quality of life. Rather than commuting 1,000 miles a week, he now has a 45-minute one-way commute from his home in Salt Lake City to his office in Ogden City. He has less stress and spends more time with his family. The experience has also made Brummett a better manager because he oversees many broad interests, rather than a single targeted customer base, as he would in the private sector.
Although he’s already begun grooming his staffers to take over, Brummett has not ruled out remaining in Ogden City government until his retirement. However, if an intriguing private sector opportunity comes along, “I will do the right thing for my career and family and probably take that job,” he says.
Fleming, who enjoys public service, plans to complete his current projects for Oregon before considering another job. The CIO is tackling two projects in which he has extensive expertise: cybersecurity and cutting costs through data center consolidation.
“Given the right opportunity, sure [I’d consider it],” Flemings says. “But I definitely want to see things through here and be successful with the things I started.”
Broward County’s Fontayne and Arizona’s Delmont are content to stay in the public sector for the same reason: to improve the community. In Florida, Fontayne, a political science major in college, feels she is where she belongs.
“I’m pleased to be here making the kind of contributions that improve government services and information,” Fontayne says. “I’ve always had an affinity for government, so it’s been a very good move.”
The Road From Private to Public
Title: CTO, Ogden City, Utah
Previous private sector job: Senior partner, Utah Capital Ventures
• Acting CTO for a large telecommunications carrier
• Turnaround specialist for companies in trouble
• Ogden City named the number-one digital city of its size in 2004 by the Center for Digital Government
Title: CIO, Chandler, Ariz.
Previous private sector job: CIO, Jimmy Carter Presidential Center
• Built computer network and hired staff for new Amoco research and development center
• Vice president of games administration, Georgia Lottery
• At the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, installed smart technology that alerts riders to arriving trains
Title: CIO, Oregon
Previous private sector job: CIO, Brookhaven National Laboratory
• In the late 1970s, developed IT culture at Standard Oil that focused on meeting employees’ needs
• At Allied Signal, consolidated 10 data centers into one within 18 months
• Improved cybersecurity at Brookhaven National Laboratory
Title: CIO, Broward County, Fla.
Previous private sector job: Resource productivity manager, Amerisure
• Oversaw $80 million insurance operation for Amerisure
• Overhauled Detroit’s IT infrastructure
• Led e-government transformation of Broward County