CIO crusades for equal federal and industry payscales

Amid mounting rumors that he will soon leave his post as chief information officer at the General Services Administration Joe Thompson stops short of confirming any immediate plans to retire. But he will look you right in the eye and say he has had offers from industry - offers that pay far better than his government salary. And that is the crux of the latest crusade taken up by this CIO champion.

"The average [information technology] official in government is grossly underpaid and I say this out of a fundamental sense of duty " he said. "There needs to be a way to pay these executives based on their performance."

Like those in other federal agencies GSA's IT shop has suffered a slew of personnel losses to the private sector. "Eighty percent of the people who have left here have increased their incomes by 50 percent and frankly I get those offers myself " Thompson said.

When pressed on the looming question of his departure Thompson said he is not ready. "I don't think all of our work here is done."

The "we" refers to Thompson and GSA administrator David Barram. He continues to work closely with Barram although it was Barram's predecessor Roger Johnson who hand-picked him four years ago from his post as assistant regional administrator in GSA's mid-Atlantic office to direct the now-defunct Information Technology Service. Thompson hinted that his transition from Johnson's right-hand man to one of Barram's top IT advisers even surprised himself.

Thompson spoke openly about the fact that he has not had an easy time adjusting to life inside the Beltway. He has kept a residence in New Jersey and commutes back and forth to visit his wife.

"I have learned that I am not a very good communicator " Thompson said. "I'm not a person who does well remaining on the edges and fringes of issues." His "direct" approach has ruffled some feathers during his stay at GSA headquarters.

But his style has worked with Johnson and Barram he said. "I would probably have left if David hadn't been appointed - if for instance we had gotten the type of administrator that would have focused more on the buildings side of GSA's mission " he said.

Barram's leadership has allowed Thompson to continue expanding upon his many IT initiatives. For example GSA is now completing work on a "Concept Store" (www.gsa.gov/regions/r9/access_store/welcome.htm) in San Francisco and online shopping run out of the regional office in Philadelphia (tsd.r3.gsa.gov/fss.htm).

Thompson described these initiatives as "model shops where a GSA customer can walk in and have online access" to the agency's full range of products and services. "We have revolutionized government procurement " he said.

When he arrived in Washington D.C. in September 1993 many observers in and out of government questioned whether GSA was even a necessary federal agency. Such questions are moot now according to Thompson. "The old GSA went out of business " he said. "That was the old process-oriented GSA.

"When I got here the multiple-award schedule program was not cost-effective " he recalled. "It was a disaster marked by customer dissatisfaction. Since then we've put in an online [electronic commerce] system and brought down prices to a point at which they are now a yardstick for competition."

Many of those advances were sparked by government/industry meetings which are now commonplace in the aftermath of procurement reform legislation enacted since Thompson has been with GSA. "We found that most of the Fortune 500 companies were like the...government and only about 5 percent were run effectively " he said. "That 5 percent provided experience that dovetailed with many of our initiatives."

Perhaps it was during that time of rubbing shoulders with Fortune 500 executives that Thompson began feeling frustrated with the government payscale. More likely it was after losing a lot of good people to the other side. "The contractors who do work for us constantly want to hire our people away " said Thompson who ventured that top private-sector CIOs make about $350 000 per year while their government equivalents pull down about $125 000.

Thompson argued that the need to change the CIO pay structure hinges on the fact that the government has downsized by 35 percent and that executives are being asked to do more than in the past. Therefore they must be paid fairly if they are to stay in government he said.

It is to those individuals who continue to serve more from a sense of duty than to draw large paychecks that Thompson said he owes much credit for his own success. "Nothing I've done could have been accomplished alone " he said.-- Jones is a free-lance writer based in Falls Church Va.

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