Feds cope with the ‘greener pastures’ syndrome

Some CIOs make a career of jumping the fence and, in many ways, are richer for doing it

Lured by the excitement of the dot-com boom, Charles Havekost decided to leave government for the private sector. But not long after leaving, he returned, wiser from the experience of working for a business that failed and ready to resume his public-service career.

Now the chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, Havekost is among dozens of federal CIOs whose careers have been shaped by the “greener pastures” syndrome. They leave their comfortable government jobs for what they think is greater opportunity in the private sector and discover, after they jump the fence, that they miss government service.

“Dot-coms looked exciting,” Havekost said. “I’d spent over 20 years in the federal service, and all of it at the National Institutes of Health.” With that résumé, he began to think that his career might need an adjustment. “I was wondering if my résumé was broken,” he said.

Before his detour into the private sector, Havekost did technical writing and provided mainframe support at NIH. In the early 1990s, he moved into network support operations. In 1999, he watched other colleagues leave government to make quick money during the dot-com boom.

Havekost jumped, too, joining a small broadband company that worked with real estate investment firms. The company provided broadband access to commercial buildings. But in less than two years, the business failed, and Havekost decided to resume his government career.

“I realized when I was out in the private sector how much I valued the health research mission of NIH,” he said. Although being a federal employee sometimes creates feelings of powerlessness, at least it’s nice to be “a cog that cranks out benefits for humankind,” Havekost said. “I missed that kind of tradition.”

Havekost returned to public service initially to lead the Grants.gov program. Then he moved to the CIO position at HHS.

Many federal information technology managers jump the fence to see what the private sector has to offer — 401(k) accounts, profit sharing, bonuses, expense accounts, nice offices with good views — and then head back to government.

The appeal of public service is the primary reason IT management professionals return, said Patrick Pizzella, chief human capital officer and assistant secretary of administration and management at the Labor Department. Pizzella was deputy undersecretary of management at the Education Department during the Reagan administration. He left to work as a lobbyist for a private law firm. But he didn’t stay. “I came back to a job that was challenging,” Pizzella said.

The Defense Department has a large concentration of IT officials who are movers. Many of them have careers in which they move “like a yo-yo, back and forth,” said Bob Woods, a former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service who is now president of Topside Consulting Group. People who truly enjoy public service but are lured away by industry usually return to resume their government careers, he said.

One former public official said the positive feelings he has about his career in the federal government must be genetic. “It’s in your DNA,” said Paul Brubaker, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at SI International, who has left and returned to government several times. “Someday I will go back in,” he said.

Brubaker said he thinks highly of public service. “You hear people in the government who claim that government can’t be efficient because there is no profit motive,” but they are wrong, he said. “Good management discipline is good management discipline.”

Some federal officials say they can’t explain their greener pastures syndrome. They just know they have it.

Samuel Mok, Labor’s chief financial officer, has left and returned to government several times. He returned in 2002 after running a consulting business for eight years. At that time, the business world changed dramatically, he said, but most of the federal government did not change.

Mok returned to the federal government feeling empowered, but it wasn’t quite the experience he had hoped it would be. “I underestimated the tenacity of the bureaucracy,” he said. “I overestimated my ability to get things done.” He said his wife tells him he has a short memory.

Mok previously held positions at the State Department and then at the Treasury Department as a career CFO. On his latest return to government, Mok said he was pleased to find that federal agencies have modernized their financial management practices.

“When I was the CFO at Treasury, we were spending a lot of time talking about financial statements and how to audit them,” he said. “Now every Cabinet-level agency has financial statements, and they are audited.”

As someone who has been on both sides of the fence, Lisa Schlosser, CIO at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has no illusions about public service or a career in the private sector. After graduating from college, she went into the military for six years where she was an intelligence officer and an Army platoon leader in the 2nd Infantry Division.

Then she moved to the commercial sector and worked at a small company that later became part of PEC Solutions. Next she joined the Ernst & Young consulting firm where she helped build its international security practice.

Public service is different from a career in business for obvious reasons, Schlosser said. “In the commercial sector, it’s all about profit. You spend a lot of time thinking about the bottom line.”

Government work is different, she said. “You think about whom you are serving and why you are serving them. You really get to focus on the work rather than the bottom line.”

Schlosser said she can deal with the downsides of a public-service career as readily as she handled the frustrations of a business career. “I don’t think either side is frustrating. You just figure out a way to do things no matter what the obstacle is,” she said.

Mark Forman, who has also had a career in and out of government, is a former administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget. He left government for a California job and then became a partner at the consulting firm KPMG. “It was at a point in my career where I needed to learn,” he said, and the private sector seemed to be the greener pasture for learning.

For some, however, the greener pasture turns out to be illusory. IT security officials who leave public service and then return hoping to find job security and shorter work days are sometimes upset, said W. Hord Tipton, CIO at the Interior Department. Those seekers do find job security, he said, but they are surprised to discover that they often work longer hours than they did in the private sector. “Burnout upon re-entry is something we have to pay attention to,” he said.

Carla von Bernewitz is on the fence

Carla von Bernewitz is an information technology executive who joined the federal government because she wanted to walk in her customers’ shoes. The federal government had been her customer for 12 years, and she was often mistaken for a government employee even before she became one.

She got her first public-service job at the Defense Department as director of the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Data Administration Program. Next she worked for the assistant secretary of Defense, helping coordinate DOD’s software preparations for the Year 2000 date change. She later served as chief information officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

Von Bernewitz returned to the private sector in 2002 as general manager of EDS’ Northeast region. After two years, she jumped back into public service as director of the Army Enterprise Integration Oversight Office. But now she is out of government and on the fence, deciding her next career move and sounding a bit like someone catching her breath.

People want to be effective and feel empowered in their careers, von Bernewitz said. But arriving at that sense of accomplishment is rarely easy, inside or outside the government. Leaders can’t change an organization until they learn its lines of communication, she said.

“In any organization, at any level, it’s daunting,” she added.

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