Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

George Newstrom, former Virginia Secretary of Technology

George Newstrom

J. Adam Fenster

George Newstrom is ready for a break. After serving 30 months as Virginia's Secretary of Technology, he resigned Oct. 1 to take time off between jobs. It's something he was unable to do in March 2002 when he left EDS Corp., where he had worked for 27 years, to join the cabinet of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D).

"On March 2, 2002, I got off a plane from Sydney, Australia, and went to work for Gov. Warner two days later," he said.

While serving as Virginia's Secretary of Technology, Newstrom helped develop an enterprise IT strategy and was a key force behind Warner's effort to consolidate state IT resources. Newstrom spoke with Staff Writer William Welsh about what it was like to sit on the government side of the table.

WT:What surprised you the most about working for state government?

Newstrom: Having only worked in the private sector before, it was how much we didn't have a grasp in Virginia of the breadth and depth of what we do and how technology really fits the business.

One of the first questions Gov. Warner asked me was, "How much do we spend in technology?" That is a very basic and fundamental question. We had no idea. As it turned out, we spend about $1 billion a year for technology in Virginia.

WT: What was the most important lesson you learned as the Virginia Secretary of Technology?

Newstrom: Government is totally different from the private sector. What I took away is how many good people are trying to do very important work. Sometimes they have the ability to do that, and sometimes they don't. Their incentive structures and their career paths may not be the same as the private sector. It is harder to recognize employees who do outstanding jobs in the government world. I believe there is a great amount of opportunity that we have in the public sector. If people who work in the private sector could give some of their time to help out the government in what it does, it would benefit both parties.  

WT:What advice would you give IT companies doing business with state government?

Newstrom: Know your customer. The thing that I found so interesting was that there are so many companies with great products and services, but they don't know the customer. They don't know how their products and services fit with the government customer. It is not my job to teach you to make your company better. It is your job to understand how you and your company fit into the model we have.  

WT: Are there specific bad practices that companies marketing to state government need to correct?

Newstrom: If you are going to do business with a state government, then it is incumbent upon you as a company to commit to doing that. Be involved in the state capital, the legislative process and the agency process. If you are not there on a day-to-day basis and have not committed time, resources, people and leadership ? and you think you can do it by flying in or driving into town and then leaving that afternoon or the next day ? you are absolutely wrong, and you will not succeed.

WT: What can states considering public-private partnerships or outsourcing IT services do to make sure their initiatives succeed?

Newstrom: Virginia is spending $1 billion on technology, but before the current administration, technology contracts were treated as vendor relationships. States are spending a considerable amount of money that impacts the business of government, yet they are treating their technology assets as a vendor vs. partner relationship. One of the things that Virginia needs to do is to work very closely with the private sector and bring its best practices into government. [It needs to] have a contractual relationship that is a true partnership rather than indentured servitude. 

WT: How can Virginia's Public-Private Education Facilities and
Infrastructure Act serve as a vehicle for successful IT outsourcing?

Newstrom: It is an extraordinary law. It allows the private sector, on a sole source basis, to look at government and make proposals on how it can impact government. It is not in response to a request for proposal or an invitation for bid ? a descriptive process that government loves to work in. It really does bring best practices, innovation and creativity to bear in the government IT process.

WT: Is there any place for offshore outsourcing of IT services in state government now?

Newstrom: Because of e-commerce and the ability to do transactions around the world at a click, it is very hard to put artificial barriers around technology. Government has to balance the needs of its citizens and their jobs, but we also have to make sure that we do it in the most competitive way possible. I believe it will be a balancing act, whether at the federal, state or local levels. We have to do both. We have to maintain and continue growing our job base, yet we also have to play in this global economic marketplace.

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