Public sector service may not appeal to enterprise technology leaders. After all, the government is known for its bureaucracy and outdated technology.
Yet, IT executives who have worked across the sectors insist government tenure is worth the effort despite challenges unique to the sector. Opportunities for innovation, career growth and serving the public drive technology leaders toward government service — and, for some, the motivation to keep going back.
"Almost all of the private sector executives I know that have come into government … are smart, they're hardworking, they're motivated, and they like to take on challenges and solve problems and make a difference," said Michael Howell, senior director of government initiatives at ACT-IAC and former deputy administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget. "And I wouldn't undercut that public service mission."
CIOs routinely enter government service after private sector stints. In a CIO Dive analysis of 75 state, federal and D.C. CIO roles or equivalent positions, 68% of officials have some background in the private sector. One-quarter of federal CIOs across 24 agencies are career government employees, according to the analysis, based on LinkedIn and biographical data.
Federal CIO Clare Martorana, who the Biden administration appointed in March, transitioned from the private to public sector before rising the ranks to her current role. Before her years as CIO of the Office of Personnel Management and a stint with the United States Digital Service, Martorana served as the president of the consumer division at Everyday Health Inc. and was SVP and editor-at-large for WebMD.
"If one were looking only to make money, there's more money to be made in the industry than there is in either academia or public service, but there's lots of other really wonderful reasons to be in both academia and the public sector."
Distinguished university professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and former assistant director at the National Science Foundation
A calling for public service work drives many IT leaders to bring their skills to the government, but hurdles abound.
Because members of the public sector are spending taxpayer dollars, there are some restrictions unique to the sector, according to Beth Simone Noveck, chief innovation officer of New Jersey, professor and director of the Governance Lab at New York University, and co-editor-in-chief of the ACM Journal on Digital Government: Research and Practice.
In procurement, for example, government IT leaders can't just buy a tech product or hire a developer overnight. Instead, they must comply with rules to keep the acquisition process fair.
"Until you sign a contract you're not allowed to have very much communication with the people bidding on that contract," Noveck said. "That can often hamper the collaboration and conversation you would want to have with other technologists about the product you're building."
In that way, transitioning to the public sector can be a culture shock for some enterprise leaders. But often, the difficulty will be "you have too many things to do and not enough hours in the day when you work for the government," Noveck said.
"If one were looking only to make money, there's more money to be made in the industry than there is in either academia or public service, but there's lots of other really wonderful reasons to be in both academia and the public sector," said Jim Kurose, distinguished university professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and former assistant director at the National Science Foundation.
Why enterprise leaders leave for government work
Despite the drawbacks, some private sector tech leaders are drawn to work for the government because of the mission and opportunities for career development.
Corporate executives frequently come to government despite making significantly more money in the private sector because they think they have something valuable to contribute to the mission and are willing to forgo that higher salary, according to Howell.
"To me, going to NSF was a form of service," Kurose said. People who come into government from industry or academia tend to view it as a way to give back to the country and field or because they find the work genuinely interesting.
"The notion of service, the notion of an interesting job, the notion of a job that has an impact … are good reasons to take a job in my book," Kurose said.
"What's kept me going back [to the public sector] is this chance to really make a difference in terms of people's lives."
Beth Simone Noveck
Chief innovation officer of New Jersey, professor and director of the Governance Lab at New York University, and co-editor-in-chief of the ACM Journal on Digital Government: Research and Practice
Kurose returned to academia after the stint at NSF because he missed the classroom, even though he was still "110% engaged in'' the program at NSF, Kurose said. In addition to the interest in serving the scientific community, Kurose said the role at NSF also deepened knowledge of science policy.
"I have a much deeper understanding about why policy is important and how the right policies can help make the right science happen," Kurose said.
Political motivations can also dictate when and how to serve in the public sector. While more common in politically appointed positions, tech leadership sometimes comes in with the party they're affiliated with to drive a certain agenda, according to Howell. While many top level federal CIOs are appointed, and some resign when an administration leaves, many stay on throughout White House transitions or are hired through traditional means.
Career growth from public-private transitions
Working in the private sector has the constraints of a for-profit environment while government comes with a set of bureaucratic hurdles. But some of the challenges IT leaders face working in the government may also arise in large corporations. For example, it can be hard to get business units to work together or deal with internal politics in both sectors, according to Howell.
"Some of the most successful IT executives I've seen in this environment are actually people that have gone back and forth," Howell said. "Each step from government to industry ... tends to give them advancement opportunities to make bigger and bigger contributions, more and more authority, greater and greater budgets, and they rise to the top."
Despite a reputation for outdated technology, there are factions of the government doing really innovative things with tech, according to Howell. There are opportunities to work with cutting-edge technology such as quantum computing or artificial intelligence because through government programs.
"Each step from government to industry ... tends to give them advancement opportunities to make bigger and bigger contributions, more and more authority, greater and greater budgets, and they rise to the top."
Senior director of government initiatives at ACT-IAC and former deputy administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget
"What's kept me going back [to the public sector] is this chance to really make a difference in terms of people's lives," Noveck said. It's more compelling to work on tech projects with human impact, such as successful distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine or propping up digital tools to provide information to citizens.
Noveck spent time in academia before becoming the first U.S. deputy CTO and director of the White House Open Government initiative under President Barack Obama. She's advised U.K. and German leaders on digital policy,
"We're doing more, of course, than selling ads or selling soft drinks. We're hopefully providing people with information that improves their lives so I'd like to think that it's a real motivator by itself," Noveck said.
To combat the challenges that come with working in the public sector, Noveck recommends coming into the public sector with concrete ideas about what programs or projects to implement.
"Having some idea of what you want to be part of can be really useful in terms of having a truly satisfying experience, and ensuring you either don't get lost or don't get pulled in too many directions," Noveck said.