Lessons from a political CIO


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The following is an update to Dan Mintz’s original post published in 2008

I was privileged to serve as the chief information officer of the Department of Transportation during President George W. Bush’s second term as a political appointee. Toward the end of my time at DOT, I reflected on the lessons learned that I might pass on to the CIOs, or other political appointees, who will have a chance to serve in future administrations. I mention six of them below.

First, respect, reach out, and work with the career employees 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. Too many appointees think the only reason that goals have not been accomplished in government is because they were not there. In reality there are systemic reasons why change in government is hard.

One of the real values that a political appointee can bring is to provide broad-based support (“high air cover”) for those career employees who want to cause change but have not been 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 person and friend, Shelley Metzenbaum, who is currently associate director for performance and personnel management at OMB, provided me that insight. I have never forgotten it though sadly did not always keep it in mind. The point is that I found that most career employees 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 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 you better at performing your responsibilities.

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 and OMB, among the public, and within your own organization often will provide contradictory and ever-changing direction. Try telling a congressional committee or your inspector general that their issue was a low priority and let me know how that goes for you. I recommend having no more than three to five top priorities and to try to take small bites. So many political appointees try to accomplish everything and end up accomplishing little or nothing.

Fifth, reach upward as much as you can, especially if your responsibility is in the technology area. 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 current emphasis is on social networking and the use of the Internet; this 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 time I spent in government was among the most enjoyable and rewarding I 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 your experience and make sure as many people you are working with as possible can share in that enjoyment.

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