Jul 31, 2017

Doug Burgum, on the transition from software exec to governor

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Until December, Doug Burgum was working in the software industry. But in January, the former Microsoft executive was sworn in as the 33rd governor of North Dakota. Burgum sat down with Axios at the recent National Governors Association meeting in Rhode Island to talk about his first six months in office.

The takeaway: Burgum is trying to run North Dakota more like a business. But he faces plenty of challenges, from an aging IT infrastructure, to mandates from Washington DC and the difficulty of convincing lobbyists and state agencies that the goal should be better outcomes, not bigger budgets.

Edited transcript of our interview:

What's similar. What's different?

"I found it to be a fairly straightforward transition. Our whole approach was not to approach this not politically but to treat taxpayers like customers, government like a business."

What doesn't translate? What doesn't work running it like a business?

"In a business you are trying to optimize return for shareholders. Here we are really trying to focus on outcomes. A lot of people in government are focused on the inputs. They want to know how big is their big is their budget. They define winning or losing by whether the budget went up or down. We said hey we've got to redefine what success is. Success isn't a bigger budget. Success is better results."

How technologically sophisticated or not did you find the North Dakota government when you arrived?

"We've got a long way to go. Even the best private sector companies are having a hard time keeping up with how rapidly the cloud/mobile (shift is happening). There's just a long, long way to go.

"North Dakota has 160 different web sites and no single sign-on. You can't go to a single web site and by a season past to the park district and then also buy a fishing license and also update your drivers' license address. That's like an impossible dream. Everything is in its own silo.

"I think every state has work to do on the cybersecurity side of things."

How concerned are you with the risks on cybersecurity, particularly the databases you have?

"I'm very concerned because as a state we've got personal health information, we've got legal records, we've got any kind of criminal activity if they are in the justice system. We've got all kinds of information. You've got aging architectures and they are silo-ed. I would guess like every state, we are behind."

You've expressed to me some frustration that a lot of the current health care debate isn't about improving health care.

"The nature of Washington seems to be focused on what I would call these very narrow elements of health care, which is Medicaid, Medicaid expansion and the individual mandate pieces. What we'd like to really focus on is how do we improve health care and how do we lower the cost.

"I think we can start doing that when we at least move past this phase of the discussion about how it gets paid for, who gets taxed, who gets subsidized. If we get past that and say OK as a state how much money do we get. If we know that number with some certainty we can start going about reinventing delivery methods.

"It's impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach in Washington. The biggest principle for me on health care is state flexibility and moving decision making back to the states.

"You could actually argue why its the federal government involved in the first place. We pay taxes, send to to DC. They send money back with a lot of constraints about it."

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