Public Service Tip No. 2: Beware the Jabberwocky


As part of my series of tips for those entering public service, I offer a chapter on the Jabberwocky of state government: the legislature.  One of the hardest things to figure out for a private sector mind in public sector life is the legislature.  This was, probably, my largest failing and one thing I'd put a lot more effort into if I were to do it again. 

One of the great wonders of democracy is that every year we turn the budgeting and operation of a $7 billion organization over to a large, unwieldy group of poorly compensated small businesspeople, ranchers, teachers, and housewives.  Then we tell them they better look like heros if they want to win the respect of their friends and neighbors so they can come back and do it again.  The first time I sat through a legislative subcommittee meeting, I was physically ill.  There's almost no hope of doing "the right thing."  You have just hope there's not too much damage when the smoke clears.  The problem isn't that these aren't good intentioned, bright people---they are.  They're just caught in an interesting situation. 

Now, let's face it, if you've been selected to be a state CIO the problem you have is you're a geek.  Any good CIO is likely more geeky than the general population.   I've worked hard to overcome my geekiness and for the most part, I clean up pretty well; but I'm still not very comfortable meeting and building a relationship with 100 people who are hard to get a hold of, don't care about IT, and have their own agenda.  Some people are great at it.  They make a nice living as lobbyists.  I'd just as soon put a nail through my hand.  I'm happier writing white papers, talking to the Enterprise Development Group, or trying to optimize desktop management

There is no vorpal sword that will slay this Jabberwocky.  You must work carefully and continually on talking to individual legislators, understanding how the process works, knowing who can influence this thought or that, and educating as many as will listen on how IT can solve their problems.  This will probably consume a large part of your time.  Its worth it.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got on this topic, although it came too late, is this: whenever you talk to a legislator, make sure you're answering the question that is foremost in their minds: "what's in it for me?".   Sometimes with IT, that's a hard thing to do.  Particularly if they see IT as being a key part of the Governor's agenda.  They might see any IT success as a loss for themselves.  I think that's been a large factor in what's happened with IT in Utah over the past year.  I've tried to prod the IT Commission into taking a stand and setting an agenda.  They cannot or will not.  In any event, they haven't and the citizens of Utah are worse off for it.