Public service calling
- By Diane Frank
- Aug 30, 2004
Cook County Bureau of Information Technology and Automation
Catherine Maras O'Leary, chief information officer for Cook County, Ill., doesn't need neon signs flashing the words "public service" or "teamwork" to remind her of critical characteristics of her job.
Unlike most counties — whose officials defer to cities, towns and states — Cook County officials provide many important functions for the county's 5.4 million constituents, such as a vital infrastructure for health care. More people are turning to the government's medical facilities for health care during the economic downturn. Cook County is the United States' second-largest county. It includes Chicago, and is primarily industrial-based.
Efficiency has become a necessity for the county, and technology has made that possible, Maras O'Leary said. County officials have created an initiative to provide full-service health care to people who have lost their health insurance coverage.
"We have four major hospitals and over 30 clinics that kind of feed in the neighborhoods," in addition to the ambulatory clinics, she said. "We've got to get [to] people where they are."
With much of the county's technology teetering on the edge of obsolescence, Maras O'Leary needed to assume control of ordering the necessary tools to build
such a service-based structure. She had to work hard to convince county government officials to pursue better technology, she
"I had to get everyone involved. I wasn't the dictator," she said.
Not all of the changes she's instilled have come easily. Sometimes she has to get one or two people into her office and talk them through the
"You have to be a teacher if you want to do this job," she said. "You have to be a teacher, coach, mentor, knowledge broker, engineer — and not be afraid. ... Let people shine, give them the equipment, the tools, so that they are the advocates."
During the past few years, Maras O'Leary has been consolidating county government purchases and developing an enterprise architecture, she said.
To prod county officials to move from talk to action, she relied on the discipline and control that she learned from her father, a former Marine.
"I was kind of raised in a civic-minded kind of household," she said. Her father, a Marine who served in the South Pacific during World War II, shared his values with Maras O'Leary and her siblings through daily experiences in their neighborhood and discussions at their dinner table.
"He was a big neighborhood guy," Maras O'Leary said. "He took what he learned in the Marine Corps and put it into our family. ... He was very strict, but good. You knew his expectations." Among those, she said, was a rule that prohibited watching television. "You had to read," she said.
After falling ill during the war, her father stopped working and spent years in close contact with his children as they grew. Working together as a family, he taught them, is how everyone advances.
Her older sister became a county judge, one brother became a master teacher for the Illinois Board of Education. Another brother became a police officer. After attending Northern Illinois University, Maras O'Leary entered corporate America, and spent 12 years rising through the information technology ranks at GATX Corp., a rail and air leasing and financial company.
"I was sitting in corporate America," she said. "I was doing well, focusing on the bottom line. I was helping everyone, all my co-workers, but there was something that was missing ... and I felt like I needed a change."
After she interviewed with Cook County President John Stroger Jr. for the CIO position, she discovered the change she needed was to return to her childhood ideals.
"Everything that was coming out of [Stoger's] mouth were things my father was saying when I was 8, 9, 10, 11 my growing years and I had to be working with this man," she said.
None of the changes came easily, and she admits future changes in politics, policies and budgets will continue to be challenging. But she is determined to serve Cook County as CIO for as long as possible because of her commitment to follow her father's lesson: Working together helps everyone.
"If you don't have the passion for that, you can't do this," she said. "When someone calls and says, 'Thank you,' or sends you an e-mail saying, 'That new interactive voice response system saved a trip downtown,' or 'I paid my tax bill over the Internet,that's all I can do."
"I can't make your illness go away, but if I can enable something that helps us solve it better, or helps you not come downtown and pay $20 for parking, or in any way makes your interfacing with Cook County easier, that's what I [will] do."