INTERVIEW: Alan Balutis, FGIPC’s bridge-builder
Sept. 11 changed federal culture
Alan P. Balutis accumulated a quarter-century of federal experience before becoming in April the first person to serve as executive director and chief operating officer of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils and its affiliate, the Industry Advisory Council.
During his final year of government service, Balutis directed the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Technology Program.
Balutis earlier served as Commerce Department deputy CIO and as director of other offices relating to budget planning and IT. He came to Washington in 1975 as a fellow of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, and he held several jobs at the then Health, Education and Welfare Department before joining Commerce in 1979.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the State University of New York at Albany.
He was recently inducted into the Post Newsweek Information Resources Management Hall of Fame [GCN, Nov. 5, Page 49].
GCN associate editor Patricia Daukantas interviewed Balutis by telephone. GCN: After 25 years of government service, how does it feel to work for a private, nonprofit group?BALUTIS:
Very comfortable. I had worked closely with a number of the people over the years on the FGIPC side. In the outreach work I did for the CIO Council, I worked with the Industry Advisory Council and other groups.GCN: Has your leadership of both FGIPC and IAC drawn the organizations closer together?BALUTIS:
The intent in creating a single, integrated directorship was a closer working relationship. I think we’re certainly moving in that direction, and there’s a greater degree of communication and coordination. But there’s still a good bit to do. GCN: Is FGIPC still relevant to federal IT managers?BALUTIS:
I hope to strengthen it by spending a lot of time with the 16 member councils. I want to find out what they do, how I can contribute to those activities, and what kind of synergy exists between some of the councils.
FGIPC has concentrated in the past on federal employees. I hope we’re going to broaden that to include state, local and tribal as well as federal.
Government is supposed to be citizen- and customer-centric and seamless across multiple levels. We ought to break down more of those walls in between.
The second thing is just simple demographics. Federal government employment is shrinking. State government has stayed fairly level over the recent years. Local government employment is three to four times larger. So if you’re going to be a growing organization, you’ve got to look at where the pools of employees are growing.GCN: What do the technology sector’s problems mean for the federal government?BALUTIS:
A number of people seem to feel that all of a sudden there’s now an abundance of technology workers available, and the federal government’s problems in that regard go away. I really don’t think that’s the case.
The demographics remain. We have an aging work force. Up to half of federal workers are eligible to retire in the next three to five years.
There are many other areas where even private-sector companies will tell you they’re hard-pressed finding people. The scarcities remain.GCN: How can agencies balance the demands of citizen-centric government with the need for critical infrastructure protection?BALUTIS:
At present, most of the electronic-government initiatives focus on the front-end delivery of services. The critical infrastructure issues are to a large extent still the back-room infrastructure kinds of things. So I don’t think there’s a tension at present.
Clearly, some of the greatest benefits in the application of technology in the business sector have come from applying the principles to back-room, supply-chain kinds of operations. At some point down the road, there may be more of a challenge. But in all cases there’s a way to take advantage of technology while ensuring privacy and security.GCN: In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, there’s been a lot of talk about public-private partnerships. What are your organizations doing to foster partnerships?BALUTIS:
Both of them were chartered on the issue of government-industry partnership, and that’s something they’ve focused on for almost 25 years on the FGIPC side and more than a decade on the IAC side. I think the events of Sept. 11 have strengthened our interest and our resolve in this arena.GCN: Many officials have been calling for agencies to share more data about potential terrorists, and yet there have been cultural and statutory barriers. What’s your perspective?BALUTIS:
Everybody always says it’s not about the technology, it’s about the change in culture, and that remains true. But of course, Sept. 11 was a transforming event. It’s led people to see some of these issues in a way that they never did before and to force both cultural and legislative change in a way that hasn’t happened before.
I think you see a greater degree of communication and coordination than has existed prior to this point. A lot of people would point out areas where there is still a need to push to bring about additional changes. But the only way we’re going to be able to deal with such an amorphous kind of enemy is being much more closely integrated than we have in the past, and that’s certainly part of [former Pennsylvania] Gov. [Tom] Ridge’s task in his new role as head of homeland security.
Technology lets you work through a number of those things. I think people sometimes overcomplicate the needs and the challenges. You don’t need full integration on the whole series of systems. You just need integration of a limited number of data elements, and proper sharing between.
I think the technologies exist to deal with most of these challenges. The real hurdles to overcome are cultural, legal and managerial. What’s happened has heightened everybody’s awareness and their recognition that there need to be dramatic changes if we’re going to prove victorious against terrorism.GCN: What cultural changes have you noticed since Sept. 11?BALUTIS:
There’s a lot of sorting out still going on, but I think people now recognize the bigger picture. I’m pleased and proud to see the way a number of people in industry and government have risen to take on these challenges with real resolve, commitment and patriotism. I think there’s the same potential to galvanize the CIO Council and the IT community in the same way that the year 2000 issue did shortly after the council was created.GCN: What about the statements that government must seek ideas from the private sector to fight terrorism?BALUTIS:
I really think leadership is saying that they’re open to ideas from all sectors. I would think they’d look to hear from employees and citizens. Actually, a lot of the things that came into FirstGov.gov
immediately afterward came in as thoughts and suggestions and leads from citizens.
The attacks galvanized the nation and communities in a way that hadn’t existed before. There are all kinds of linkages, partnerships and alliances that didn’t occur before.GCN:
What can the private and public sectors learn from each other in terms of retaining and recruiting people and providing career opportunities?BALUTIS:
There’s an excellent report that the CIO Council commissioned from the National Academy of Public Administration. The academy looked at best practices, and they looked at some around the federal government, but they also looked at state and local governments and the private sector. They put together a package of recommendations that deal with recruitment, retention, mentoring and exchange programs.
It’s a nice inventory of what people are doing that’s innovative and creative. And it gets way beyond salary issues, because I think salary is not the main driver for people in entry- and even mid-level positions. The study seems to show it is the main driver for senior-level positions.
But there’s a host of other things that government can do to attract and retain people. I think Sept. 11 reawakened interest in public service. It’s up to us to see whether we can take advantage of that and bring in a generation that’s motivated to serve in the same way that, 40 years ago, people were motivated by John Kennedy and his speeches.