Roadblock for Tech Execs: Politicians

 
 
By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2006-03-06
 
 
 
THE OBSTACLE

Before Greg Meffert went to work for the city of New Orleans, the software entrepreneur had never paid much attention to city politics. These days, he is in the thick of it.

In his broader role as deputy mayor, for instance, Meffert has gotten himself in the middle of inflammatory issues such as ordering the demolition of the homes damaged most severely by Hurricane Katrina.

"It's not just politics, but politics in a very political town—and not just that, but a town that's gone through a major worldwide crisis," he says.

Many government information chiefs have come from the corporate world, but it's not always a smooth transition. Some of the biggest challenges come from having to deal with government officials and their way of doing business. For those who may be looking to make the move into public service, some suggestions:

THE RESPONSE

Know going in that government and business work differently. "I thought I had seen government, and that it wasn't that bad," says Keith Thibodeaux, CIO of Lafayette (La.) Consolidated Government, who had been working on the periphery as CTO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority before he went to work for the city. But seeing how it worked from the inside was different, he says.

"In the business, the joke was always that if we wanted to kill something, we'd give it to a committee. But government works entirely by committee," Thibodeaux says. So, prepare yourself for a culture shock.

Adapt quickly to the realities of the public sector.

In business, there's usually one person who can ultimately make a decision. Often in government, no one has the last word. Projects may have to be backed by officials, voted on, sent out to open competitive

bidding, submitted to review and then, even if approved, be able to withstand a suit by losing bidders. "The checks and balances are so effective, sometimes they can counteract any movement at all," Thibodeaux points out. Be prepared to be patient.

Be a little bit of a politician. Thibodeaux says he has learned to be more cautious about floating new ideas, taking care to line up support ahead of time.

Otherwise, he says, "Right off the bat, you've got 12 people who think you're trying to work around them. So, you need to go meet with them one on one before you release anything, and make them feel like they're in on this from the moment the concept hit your mind."

"You have to have your eyes open, your ears open, learn a lot and be flexible," says Fort Wayne, Ind., CIO Clifford Clarke, a former CIO at Lincoln Financial Group. "Sometimes, it just takes a little more discussion to get there."

Be careful in extending your reach. On the top of Thibodeaux' list of what not to do is getting wrapped up in the more political functions of city government, like his friend Meffert.

"He's also got the role of city planner—I wouldn't take that for anything," Thibodeaux says.

Meffert, in addition to being New Orleans' chief information officer and chief technology officer, is also a deputy mayor and is responsible for several other departments, including city planning and safety and permits.

New Orleans Council President Oliver Thomas says it was a mistake to give such broad responsibilities to someone who has more talent for technology than politics and other "human issues" of running the city.

"It requires a whole other mind-set," Thomas says.

Meffert candidly admits he has little talent for politics, often not recognizing whose toes he is stepping on until he's already in trouble. But he also sees himself doing what he thinks is right, regardless of politics.

Meffert has forced through needed changes, such as speeding up the issuance of business permits, that have made the city "easier to deal with," says Darryl D. d'Aquin, president of New Orleans-based CommTech Industries, who got to know Meffert when they were working on Mayor Ray Nagin's transition team after the mayor's election.

As d'Aquin puts it: "If you've got good intentions, that can be a good thing in the long run."