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State Chief Operating Officers: In defense of the governors’ legacies.

Tennessee Chief Operating Officer Greg Adams

There’s a new trend among the states to create a position called the Chief Operating Officer (COO). As we recently wrote in Governing magazine, “the COO takes on the tasks that governors simply don’t have the time to do, such as improving coordination between agencies. ‘Most of the state agency directors serve at the pleasure of the governor, but the governor doesn’t have the capacity to manage the work of agencies on a day-to-day basis,’ says Matthew Shelby, communication strategist at the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. In effect, the COO serves as a convener-in-chief who can bring agency heads around a table and facilitate conversations about operating as a single entity. ‘There’s a growing expectation,’ Shelby adds, ‘that we’re working together.'”

Of course, the federal government has been using chief operating officers for years. They came into fashion during the period of time when Vice President Al Gore was “reinventing” government. And they’re also very common at the city level. But, according to a survey commissioned by the National Governors Association in 2015, they existed in relative few states including Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee and  a handful of others. Just last January, Missouri joined the list.

One of the benefits of the COO’s position is that it frees the governor up to stay out of the weeds of governance and spend more time trying to figure out what kind of flowers to plant and where to plant them.

As quoted in the Governing piece, Barry Van Lare, who has held multiple high-level positions in both the state and federal governments, including a number with the National Governors Association said, Governors “legacy depends not so much on their policy objectives as on whether something went wrong from an administrative point of view during their administration and whether they were able to handle it.”


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