State Chief Administrators: The Lynchpins in State Government Reform

State governments are facing a fiscal crisis, the worst since the Great Depression. Unprecedented challenges seem overwhelming when change requires working with state bureaucracies so large and entrenched that state administrators are unable to affect meaningful improvements. State administrators are, in fact, an integral part of state reform.

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By Paul Campbell and Michael E. Snyder


Does management matter in the public sector? Norma Riccucci, a professor of public administration at Rutgers University, writes in her award-winning book that, “Although there is abundant evidence that management makes a difference in the operations and productivity of public sector bureaucracies, there is another body of literature purporting that management does not matter. This research paints a very pessimistic picture of the ability of administrators and managers to redirect the juggernaut of modern society—large, entrenched  bureaucracies.”1

If better management can help states restore fiscal stability, can it also help convince the public that tax dollars are being spent wisely? Recent studies, including several from the Pew Center on the States, show the general public is losing faith in the state and federal governments’ ability to manage itself effectively.2

The National Association of State Chief Administrators, known as NASCA, believes management does matter and state chief administrators can play a significant role in reforming and restoring the public’s faith in government. Eggers and Campbell add that the “… issue of trust transcends the mere balancing of budgets … and the public seems skeptical of the competence and integrity of their public leaders.”3 NASCA believes effective management of the core business functions for any organization, public or private, will determine the overall performance and efficiency of the entire organization.

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue set out in 2002 to reform several state administrative functions with the goal of making Georgia one of the best managed states within five years.4 Perdue was named as one of the “2010 Public Officials of the Year” by Governing magazine because of his business-like management of state operations and his approach to running some functions of government like a business.5 State chief administrators across the country can use their business expertise to support major reform initiatives that can dramatically improve the operations of state government.

Defining State Chief Administrators and their Role in Government

Responsibilities of a chief administrator vary greatly from state to state. The most commonly held view of the position’s responsibilities is the management and delivery of a state’s administrative or business functions on behalf of other state agencies. In other words, the chief administrator runs the back office business functions of state government. These functions include roughly 60 different services across all 50 states.6 As a result, chief administrators have been at the center of a move in state government toward shared services and consolidation over the past decade.7

Throughout the past 10 years, many states have looked to the shared-services model when organizing the core business functions of state government. According to a survey on shared services in state and local government conducted by Government Technology, the most common reason for shared services is saving money.8 The model has no doubt played, and continues to play, a significant role in the management philosophy of state government. Moreover, whether part of a shared services strategy or not, agency consolidations have been used to save money and shrink government. Since 2009 alone, at least 17 states have consolidated or eliminated agencies that have been identified as duplicative or nonessential.9

Throughout all the consolidations and reorganizations, however, the old axiom remains true: To know one state is to know one state. This holds especially true when trying to describe the various responsibilities of state chief administrators.

The type of functions that fall under the jurisdiction of chief administrators are diverse and numerous. NASCA identifies roughly 60 different functions, not counting miscellaneous programs and boards that are often relegated to a chief administrator’s department. Yet, despite such a large number of functions, the average number of functions a state chief administrator is responsible for is only 15, which illustrates the diversity of responsibilities among the position in the states. Administrative agencies in Florida (25 functions), New Jersey (23 functions), Alaska (22 functions), Kentucky (21 functions) and Louisiana (21 functions) are responsible for the most functions. Conversely, agencies in Maryland and Texas, both with six functions, have the fewest number of responsibilities.

Despite this diversity in responsibilities, there are some common trends. Of the more than 60 functions state chief administrators face, many share a predominant set of common responsibilities; the most common functions are procurement services (44), building and facility maintenance (43), and construction (40). More than 30 chief administrators are responsible for managing the state’s vehicle fleet (36), auctioning state and federal surplus property (36 and 30 states, respectively), leasing agreements (33), printing (31) and risk management/state liability insurance (30).

At least half the state chief administrators are responsible for human resources (28), health insurance benefits (25), statewide accounting services (25) and information technology (26). Additional major functions managed by less than half the chief administrators, but by more than 10, include supplies purchasing (20), state budget services (18), nature conservation (13), and telecommunications (12). Chief administrators are required to manage roughly 40 additional responsibilities, such as the state audit (12), archives and record keeping (9), or wireless communications (8).

The role of a state chief administrator can be broken down into four categories based on their common primary functions—infrastructure, personnel, finance management and general services.

The infrastructure category includes those chief administrators whose primary responsibilities are maintaining state infrastructure, including construction, maintenance, telecommunications and information technology, and building and grounds management. The personnel category includes chiefs with primary responsibilities around human resources, health care benefits, professional development and insurance. The finance management category includes departments that primarily focus on services related to accounting, budget, debt, audit and other similar financial services. Finally, the general services category is for all other services, such as printing, mail, fleet, archiving, storage, travel assistance and procurement.

The data also show some interesting regional patterns in the responsibilities of state chief administrators.10

Tables A and B show that general services are significant responsibilities compared to other categories. Infrastructure is a close second, but only general services manage to beat out all other categories for every region of the country in terms of the number of state chief administrative offices with this responsibility. Personnel is the next most common category—it’s the second most common responsibility in all regions except the West, where the percentage is tied with infrastructure. Financial management responsibilities are the least common, with less than 50 percent of the chief administrators having those responsibilities in all regions.

This information is helpful to understand who is accountable within each state for many key business functions. The more important role of a state chief administrator, however, is the way they manage these core business functions to support major statewide reforms.

Primary Responsibilities and How They Impact Overall State Functionality

The chief administrator’s greatest impact on the operations of state government will not come from simply reducing the cost of administrative functions. For example, administrative functions typically represent about 10 percent of the total state budget.11  If a savings initiative targeted at the administrative functions saved 10 percent, that 10 percent equals 1 percent of the overall budget.12 Cuts in a state chief administrator’s budget, therefore, are simply not large enough to have an appreciable effect on a state deficit. While savings anywhere are helpful these days, states will not dig themselves out of their budget holes by expanding video conferencing and sourcing commodities alone.

Massive budget cuts alone are also not likely to restore public faith in state government. A Pew Center on the States study found citizens “… are more likely to say their elected leaders … could deliver services more efficiently than to complain that state government is too big.”13 Therefore, to restore fiscal stability as well as public trust in state government, states will need to find innovative ways to reinvent government.

The chief administrator’s most important role is to support and at times lead, major change management initiatives that reinvent government. If any state wants to tackle real game changers—such as privatization, true shared services or publicprivate partnerships—all paths lead through the state chief administrator’s office. For example, any public-private partnerships will require a much more sophisticated approach to procurement, where 44 of the chief administrators have primary responsibility.14 Innovative new approaches will require a more highly trained and skilled work force and 27 state chief administrators manage human resources. Any successful new program or initiative must have strong information technology support involving 25 of the administrator’s offices. In 15 states,15 the state chiefs are responsible for all three functions. In the end, the ability of the state chief administrator and his team to support major management initiatives will determine the overall success of any state reforms.

Moreover, the state chief administrator, through effective execution of reforms, can act as an example and help restore the public’s faith in government. The Pew study on public trust confirms a growing frustration with government.16 This frustration will not be curtailed by political rhetoric coupled with a token trimming of state budgets. If people are to have faith in government again, government needs new solutions to old problems and the public needs to see managers in government can successfully execute these new strategies. As Thomas Edison said, “vision without execution is hallucination.” This is the area where the management skills of chief administrators will play a critical role in substantially improving the functionality of state operations.

Georgia’s approach is again worth noting. Gov. Perdue created the Commission for a New Georgia and included senior business executives that were influential leaders in the state.17 He added a chief operating officer to the state, a role that many chief administrators already play within state government. Georgia’s administrator was recruited based on his “extensive expertise in purchasing and supply chain management.”18 “It’s an approach to government that allowed Perdue to keep the state’s fiscal house in order in the midst of the worst financial crisis to hit the nation—and Georgia—in generations.”19

“What are the skills necessary for an SCA to play such a transformative role? Is the job more operations or politics?” One could argue the state chief administrator is the least political job in the governor’s cabinet because it’s a pure operations role. On the other hand, when managing large contracts, hiring and budgeting, a chief administrator should understand the political landscape if he or she plans to help change the view. This is the primary reason the role can be so difficult to fill. Governors must find someone with an understanding of both the business and political world. As Eggers and Campbell point out, “Our nation’s new governors take office at a difficult time. These newcomers have to balance their budgets, but they also need to reform how state government operates.”20  In 2011, with dozens of new chief administrators entering state government, and nearly every state headed toward a fiscal cliff,21 the administrators must be effective managers with a track record of successful innovation.

  Download Table C:  Primary Functions of State Chief Administrators


The critical business functions state chief administrators manage places them squarely at the center of state operations. The question is whether they will use their role to push for real reforms in state government. As state government wrestles with the worst fiscal climate since World War II, officials will have real opportunities to challenge the status quo and execute real change. State chief administrators can play a central role in that transformation.

1 Norma M. Riccucci, How Management Matters: Street Level Bureaucrats and Welfare Reform. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 2005). (Norma M. Riccucci is a professor in the Graduate Department of Public Administration at Rutgers University, Newark; and author of “Managing Diversity in Public Sector Workforces” and “Unsung Heroes: Federal Execucrats Making a Difference.” “How Management Matters” draws upon two years of personal interviews and national surveys to examine how public management matters in government organizations.)

2 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Distrust, Discontent, Anger, and Partisan Rancor: The People and Their Government,” (2010).  Pew Center on the States, “Facing facts: Public Attitudes and Fiscal Realities in Five Stressed States,” (2010). 

3 William D. Eggers and Robert N. Campbell III, (2010). “How New Governors Can Renew Public Trust,” Governing. 

4 Michael D. Keats and Jason L. Owens. “Procurement in the State of Georgia.” Presented at the National Association of State Chief Administrator’s Institute on Management and Leadership, Atlanta, (2010).

5 “Top Officials of the Year Named by Governing Magazine,” Governing. (2010) 

6 “Areas of Responsibilities for NASCA Members,” National Association of State Chief Administrators. (Available soon) at

7 National Governors Association, NGA Center for Best Practices, State Government Redesign Efforts 2009 and 2010, (2010).

8 Survey on Shared Services in State and Local Government,(2007). 

9 National Governors Association, NGA Center for Best Practices, State Government Redesign Efforts 2009 and 2010, (2010), 14-6. Consolidations do not always accomplish the stated goal of creating efficiencies. As Petronius noted in 210 b.c., “we trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. … I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” As found in a recent McKinsey Study, “the tactics used most by the most successful organizations suggest that all organizations implementing a redesign would
benefit from explaining to employees how the new design works, ensuring that systems and processes support it, and winning hearts and minds.” See: Giancarlo Ghislanzoni, Stephen Heidari-Robinson, and Martin Jermiin, “Taking Organizational Redesigns From Plan to Practice: McKinsey Global Survey Results,” McKinsey Quarterly: The Online Journal of McKinsey & Company, (2010).

10 State chief administrators might not be counted as having a significant emphasis for a category if that administrator only covered a minimum number of the responsibilities that constitute that category. Each state chief administrator was ranked according to the level of focus in a category by counting the number of functions under that category that the state has responsibility for. If a state chief administrator was responsible for about half of the functions of that category it was counted as having a significant emphasis on that category. Please contact the National Association of State Chief Administrators
at for the most updated comprehensive list of each SCA’s responsibilities.

11 Bill Bott and Ken Miller, “Worse, Slower, Cheaper, But …” Governing, (2010).

12 Ibid.

13 Pew Center on the States. “Facing facts: Public Attitudes and Fiscal Realities in Five Stressed States,” (2010). 

14 Stephen Goldsmith and William D. Eggers, Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2004).

15 AK, AL, AZ, FL, IA, KS, MA, MO, NE, OH, RI, SC, VT, WV and WY.

16 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Distrust, Discontent, Anger, and Partisan Rancor: The People and Their Government,” (2010).

17 “The Businessman: Sonny Perdue,” (2010) Governing.

18 See note 4.

19 See note 15.

20 See note 3.

21 National Association of State Budget Officers, The Fiscal Survey of the States: An Update of State Fiscal Conditions, (2010).

About the Authors

Paul Campbell is a member of the Board of Directors for NASCA. He served as chief administrator in Illinois and previously as a federal agent and prosecutor. His private sector experience includes serving as partner with the law firm DLA Piper and national head of business development for Unitedhealthcare’s Public Sector Group state market. Campbell has his M.B.A. from Northwestern University.

Michael E. Snyder is a researcher for NASCA. He has also worked for the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Department of Political Science as a research assistant and assistant editor. Snyder holds an M.A. in political science from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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