Lessons From a Political CIO


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As one of the chief information officers who was politically appointed and thus will be out of a job Jan. 20, I have been reflecting on the lessons learned that I might pass on to the CIOs who will have a chance to serve in the next administration. Perhaps a few of these thoughts may be useful to any political appointee.

I mention six of them here. I suspect given time I could come up with many more.

First, respect, reach out, and work with the career staff that report to you at the agency you serve. You will find them dedicated, caring, competent, and tremendously hard-working. You will learn much from them, and it will be only with their support that you have an opportunity to accomplish great things.

One of the real values that a political appointee can bring is to provide broad-based support (“high air cover”) for those career staff who want to cause change but are not empowered to do so. When you can use your connections to the departmental political leadership to provide that support, take advantage of those relationships.

Second, remember that political appointees can never speak in a whisper. A truly wonderful professor, Shelley Metzenbaum of the University of Maryland, who has done work supporting the Department of Transportation, provided me that insight. I have never forgotten it though sadly not always kept in mind. The point is that I have found that most career staff very much want to be as supportive as they can. However, if you are not clear in what you want accomplished, or if you are like me and think out loud, you will unintentionally provide inconsistent and confusing direction, especially until your staff gets used to how you operate.

Third, participate in the various groups that exist within the government to allow the exchange of information. These include the federal CIO Council and perhaps more importantly the committees associated with the Council. Also participate in those groups set up to allow information interchange between the Government and their partners including ACT/IAC, AFFIRM, ITAA/AEA/GEIA, and NAPA. If nothing else, you can learn what all of these abbreviations and acronyms mean and be entertaining at cocktail parties and other events. By attending and perhaps speaking at these meetings, you will meet truly interesting people who will provide advice that will make your job easier.

Fourth, learn to accept that you will not get everything done, and therefore make the hard decision to prioritize. If you have never been in public service before you will find that unlike the private sector where the goals are fairly simple and the stakeholders relatively consistent in their interests, the opposite is true in government. Private company goals are generally to make more revenue and/or reduce expenses. In the public environment, the goals are less distinct and more complex. Your many bosses on the Hill, in the White House, among the public, and within your own organization often will provide contradictory and ever-changing direction. Try telling a congressional committee or the inspector general that their issue was a low priority and let me know how that goes for you.

Fifth, reach upward as much as you can. The CIO position within government is often or even completely focused downward toward technology optimization. While this is important, the real value you bring is in enhancing your organization’s mission by looking upward. One clear emphasis of the next administration — on social networking and the use of the Internet — will provide new opportunities to make IT useful in enhancing the interaction of the government with the American citizen and other key external stakeholders. Seize the opportunity to be supportive of such efforts — become an Internet gardener.

Sixth, and finally, have fun. I can honestly say that the last two-plus years have been the most enjoyable and rewarding time I have ever had as a professional. I would not have traded one minute — well maybe one or two — for anything. You will have the opportunity to have great consequence at a place that itself has great consequence for the American public. Enjoy it and pass on that feeling to all you work with.

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CIO, Dan Mintz
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