CIO keeps focus on people
Perhaps no chief information officer in government has a past as varied as the General Services Administration's Shereen Remez. She has worked as a psychologist, an archivist, a marketing executive and a public affairs official. If that weren't enough variation, Remez plays classical guitar and is teaching herself piano; maintains a strict running regimen of 5 miles per day, five days per week; and is raising a 9-year-old son.
Although Remez has dabbled in information technology throughout her career, she became immersed in the field in 1987, when she joined the agency's now-defunct Information Resources Management Service (IRMS) as a media liaison.
From there, she helped establish GSA's CIO office in December 1995 with her predecessor, Joe Thompson, and she took control of the office last year after Thompson retired.
Remez originally planned a career in psychology, a subject in which she holds a Ph.D. She does not see a disparity between her old field of study and her current CIO job.
"I think this background has been unexpectedly helpful to me," she said. "I always keep in mind that the point of IT is not the technology itself but the information it brings to people."
Even though PCs have found their way onto virtually every government desktop, Remez still finds that many federal employees feel threatened by computers. She said she tries to present technology to GSA employees in a "non-threatening" way. "The key is to offer [employees] something to go towards rather than something they have to give up," she said.
Remez's father served as a bureau director at the Office of Personnel Management, and her mother worked at the National Institutes of Health. She thinks her parents' work ethic may have inspired her on some unconscious level to choose work in the public sector.
"I didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to be a bureaucrat,' but I made a good choice," she said. "It's just an ethic that makes you want to give something to your country."
After receiving her master's degree in education from American University in 1970, Remez became an intern at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) in a program that introduced her to budgetary, program management and personnel issues in the department.
Three years later, she accepted a job at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which at the time had begun making a name for itself through its efforts to protect children from unsafe toys. Remez helped develop safety education tools at the commission.
She took her first GSA job in 1977 as media director of GSA's Consumer Information Center. There, she oversaw the development of the clever TV ads for the center's mail-order brochure. (The ads can be viewed at www.pueblo.gsa.gov/commlist.htm.) Remez worked with the major TV networks to give the spots lots of play and even made the rounds of the local talk shows to promote the center's work.
She moved on to the National Archives and Records Administration in 1981, where she served as assistant archivist for public programs. "I was in charge of all those exhibits, publications and movies that Archives puts out," she said. "It was a great job."
In 1983 she moved into a job at GSA's Office of Public Affairs, and she made the jump to IRMS four years later. Her IT education began at that point. "Being in a huge technical operation, I couldn't help but be exposed to what was happening in IT," she said. "I can remember my first e-mail, my first Macintosh, my first PC."
By 1995 IRMS had been renamed the Information Technology Service, and Thompson appointed Remez to assistant commissioner for administration and planning. "That's when the CIO concept started surfacing," she said. "I was instrumental with [Thompson] in talking to private-sector CIOs, and we took what we learned back to GSA. We developed an interest in having GSA start a CIO office, which was established slightly before the legislation [requiring agencies to appoint CIOs] was passed."
Remez spends most of her time on the issues that also consume her counterparts at other agencies: the Year 2000 problem, training and education, capital planning and seat management.
But Remez said she wants to put most of her energy into offering automated services directly to citizens over the next few years. "I want to be a mover and a shaker towards better service to the public," she said. "That's what government service is about, and that's why I work for the government."