Mass. CIO Peter Quinn Resigns

I usually reserve this blog for postings on voice technologies and their use in government. However, I feel compelled to comment here on an issue relating to the use of information technology in government more broadly — the recent resignation of Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn.

Mr. Quinn has been the subject of many a news article and blog posting since late summer because of his leadership in developing a policy for the Commonwealth regarding an open document format. If your not familiar with this issue, its worth boning up on. Since the announcement of this new policy last August, a good deal of controversy was been generated and a pretty animated debate (which included top Romney Administration officials and State Legislators) ensued.

Mr. Quinn was the subject of intense scrutiny, and was also investigated for possibly accepting inappropriate reimbursements for travel expenses to various open source conferences ““ he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in this regard.

I don’t know Peter Quinn well, but we did meet at a gathering of State IT officials that preceded the launch of the Government Open Code Collaborative project. (Mr. Quinn’s leadership in getting this project off the ground was invaluable in my opinion.) I have followed the news accounts surrounding the Massachusetts open document policy and generally believe that it was the right thing to do. I think that Mr. Quinn is a dedicated, smart, passionate public servant that served the people of the Commonwealth well ““ they may one day find that they were better served by having him as the CIO. We’ll see.

Having said all of that, I think this issue provides a number of very important lessons for government IT professionals:

  • Government is inherently a political environment. IT policy makers and managers can not delude themselves into thinking that they are not operating in an arena that is populated largely by political actors. The nature of this environment must be recognized and respected if significant policy changes (especially controversial ones) are to be enacted.
  • Being right often isn’t enough. Simply having a good idea, or proposing a change that is broadly recognized as being “the right thing” often isn’t enough to get a policy enacted. In some ways, politics is the art of reciprocity (or, as Don Vito once said, “Some day I may ask you for a favor”¦”). IT managers are often hesitant to engage in horse trading, and dirty their hands in the political arena. Legislators, budget officials and politicians are generally interested in doing the right thing ““ they just want to know what’s in it for them.
  • Company cools controversy. Radical changes are often helped by having key stakeholders buy into the proposed change. The open document policy did not have support from some very key players, most notably the official in charge of archiving state records and documents. Obtaining buy in from key administration officials and legislators should have been part of the broader effort to enact the proposed policy change.
  • Wear a cup. If a proposed policy threatens an entrenched interest (especially one with lots of money) you’re going to have to deal with a couple of kicks to the wontons. Get your ducks in a row ““ know who the opponents of your policy are likely to be, and how they are likely to come at you. As Sun Tzu said in the Art of War ““ “One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be in danger in a hundred battles.”