CXO

The pros and cons of working for Uncle Sam

Boasting increasing budgets and an aggressive technology impetus, the U.S. federal government appears to be an improved career venue for IT leaders. Yet, as a former government CIO relates, there are still some downsides to working for Uncle Sam.


Simple staff attrition and increased tech spending are boosting the government’s need for top IT leadership. Within the next five years, 50 percent of government workers will be eligible for retirement. At the same time, government spending is soaring primarily due to the war on terrorism—there’s a proposed $11 billion budget on the table for the Department of Defense’s science and technology unit—and it’s clear that IT career opportunities abound.

Yet government work does have its own set of pros and cons. The Feds have legitimately earned a reputation for largess and bureaucracy, so project development can be frustrating. Then again, the government is known for its pioneering R&D efforts that, among other things, helped create today’s Internet.

To get a clearer view of what it’s like to work as a government CIO, I spent time talking with George R. Molaski, the first CIO for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Molaski served in the role from June 1999 to February 2001. At the DOT, Molaski reported directly to then Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater and oversaw a $3 billion annual IT budget for 14 governmental agencies.

When his appointment ended last year, Molaski founded E-Associates, a consulting company based in Falls Church, VA.

Getting a government job
TechRepublic: What’s the best way for a corporate CIO to pursue a job with the government?
Molaski:
Well, there are two ways. Two-thirds of the positions are for career CIOs. These are competitive and part of the civil-service interview and selection process. Agencies such as the Department of Health & Human Services and the U.S. Treasury choose their CIOs this way. The other one-third is chosen through political appointments at the department level. [Molaski was appointed to his position by Secretary Slater.] It was the Clinger-Cohn Act of 1996 that mandated there be CIOs in 24 different departments. It was passed because Congress was appropriating millions of dollars for IT projects and weren’t seeing results. They needed someone at a high level who could be held accountable.

Cultural differences
TechRepublic: What cultural differences can a person expect between working for the government and working for a corporation?
Molaski:
The main differences are the dynamics of the culture. They are a lot more subtle than I realized. In industry, you have "better, cheaper, faster" as a natural dynamic. If you live by that dynamic, then you are in a competition—you win the contracts and you get the promotions. In government, "better, cheaper, faster" doesn’t work because no one cares. There is no reward for doing things better, cheaper, or faster. And there are no consequences for doing things slower, more expensive, and worse.

TechRepublic: That sounds very frustrating. How do you overcome that?
Molaski:
In government, you have to find a pressure point to cause movement—usually a law mandating something or an Office and Management budget requiring a report. Under President Bush’s management agenda, each agency is graded now with a yellow, red, or green. Almost all agencies got a red or a yellow. What you have with that is another kind of pressure point. These things are now going to be public, going to be graded upon, and asked upon. This is how you get government to move in a certain area. And yes, at times, it is frustrating. For example, when I was CIO, we were given the order to have no persistent cookies on any of the Web sites. So I sent out a mandate [to 14 agencies] to remove the cookies. The Federal Aviation Administration [and the] U.S. Coast Guard came back and said, “We don’t have cookies.“ But the cookies were still there. So I went out again, saying, ”No cookies; please certify it in writing. The Inspector General has mandated this.“ Again, the cookies were still there. I couldn’t fire anyone or discipline anyone. I couldn’t move anyone out of position because they didn’t conform. I don’t want to portray the government bureaucrat as someone who sits there and says, ”I don’t care.“ Most are caring, hard-working individuals and are trying very hard to do the best job for the citizens. It’s just that if it’s not on their priority list, it’s not important. They eventually got to it. But it’s like dealing with your child in trying to get them to clean up their room sometimes.

TechRepublic: Why does that dynamic exist?
Molaski: It’s an attitude between the government career employees and the political people. A lot of times, the careerists take the ”we be here” attitude—we be here before you, and we will be here after you are gone. If they don’t agree with the administration, they’ll just drag their feet.

Salary and benefits
TechRepublic: How are the salaries and other benefits for government CIOs? Are they comparable to the corporate sector?
Molaski: They are not competitive. I had oversight for $3 billion of tech investment, and I was paid at the highest rate: $133,000 a year. I don’t think the CIO of General Motors makes $133,000. Bonuses are available but not for political appointees. As for the new retirement package, it is more like a 401(k), with matching contributions. That’s what all government employees get now. That’s a dynamic that’s going to change things. In the past, you had to stay 20 to 30 years to get a pension. I predict that you’ll see a lot of people moving in and out of government careers now with the portability of their retirement package.

Challenges for IT leaders
TechRepublic: Can you compare the government projects and tell us about some of the challenges IT leaders will have coming into a government position?
Molaski: Each of the projects has its own interesting points. But the government projects are just so much larger in scale than what you commonly see in corporate America. For example, Firstgov.gov, the portal for the federal government, is now numbering 35 million Web pages. That’s a different scale than developing a Web portal for General Motors. Another point is that you can move faster in industry than you can in government, as a company’s budget isn’t set so far ahead. The government’s 2003 budget is already done. Over at the Office of Management and Budget, the 2004 budget is being put together in the next month. If someone new is coming into the government in the summer, the first impact they’re going to be able to have on the budget and priorities is 2005. Great ideas might take a couple of years to begin.

TechRepublic: What about the professional and federal hierarchy? Did you feel you had some control and say over the 14 agencies you had oversight for?
Molaski: You would think that the CIO of different agencies would have accountability to the departmental CIO. But they do not. And even within those agencies, you would think that the sub-CIOs would be accountable to their CIO. But they’re not. It’s not a line structure that you would find in an [corporate] organization. That’s the other major difference—the way management functions in industry is different from the government.

Time of transition brings opportunity
TechRepublic: Well, if working as a government CIO can be so frustrating, and the pay isn’t so hot, is it a career path you recommend to today’s corporate tech leaders?
Molaski: The CIO position was one of my most satisfying positions I’ve had in my 25-year career, as it allowed me to be a thought leader, do public service, and make a difference. Even with the hurdles, I think it’s a great time to be in government because the government is going through its biggest transformation since the 1940s. It’s transforming itself structurally and culturally from the industrial age to the technology age. People are breaking down silos of information and bringing them tighter together, so you can bring your ideas much more to the forefront, move more quickly than you could in the past, and be part of this restructuring of government.

What’s been your experience?
Have you worked for the government in a tech leader role? If so, how does your experience compare with Molaski's? Write and tell us about it. We’re also seeking input on a related story about moving from a government role to a corporate tech spot, and we welcome your feedback.

 

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