Education CIO: A Man on a Mission

WASHINGTON (03/21/2000) - Staying perfectly still, Craig Luigart looks to the stars. Luigart, chief information officer at the U.S Department of Education, enjoys taking pictures of objects in space. The hobby requires careful focus and the aid of many different lenses to bring the objects, which cannot be seen by the naked eye, into view.

His views of the world are equally unique. Luigart copes with a rare disease -- primary lateral sclerosis (PLS) -- that requires him to use a motorized wheelchair for much of the day. An assortment of gadgets help him answer his phone and deal with the 200 or so e-mail messages he gets every day. After a career as a Navy pilot and a four-year stint in the private sector, Luigart became Education CIO in September 1999. And if his shift from the public sector to the private sector and back doesn't illustrate his penchant for bucking tradition, try this on for size: He doesn't care about the money. "Just like a Navy pilot who is paid next to nothing but is willing to lose his life for the mission, if I buy into the mission, money is the least of my concerns," Luigart said.

He has bought into the mission at Education with the same zeal that brought him safely home after every flight.

After successfully dealing with the Year 2000 rollover, Luigart said his main areas of focus have been change management, asset management and security.

"About 90 percent of my job is cultural, and the other 10 percent is technical," Luigart said. "Execution means doing things a little bit different than the status quo, and that's change management."

Part of that effort involved developing a more unified model for Education's World Wide Web sites, which include some of the most visited sites on the Internet for parents and educators.

"These sites support teachers' and parents' daily job of educating children," he said. "We fund and support hundreds of Web sites nationally, but there was no good portal model for distributing information." He used asset management to unify the department's 16 assistant secretaries, all of who manage individual assets and databases. Luigart restructured Education's Technology Advisory Board to put a greater focus on information technology and what it can offer the department. Members have been meeting every two weeks since October and typically address issues that affect every office, from implementing change management policies to developing security models.

A big change in Luigart's life began when he suffered the "worst flu of my life" after a three-week mission to Pakistan in the summer of 1991. It took him a full month to recover. About six weeks later, during his daily five-mile run, Luigart noticed that his left foot was striking the ground strangely. He figured it was just a problem with his orthotic inserts. But the problem worsened over the next few months, and when Luigart described the symptoms to his doctor, the reaction was not what he was expecting. His feet were not the problem. He underwent a battery of tests of his brain functions and central nervous system, an MRI and spinal taps.

He was diagnosed with PLS, an affliction that is diagnosed by exclusion, when doctors have given up on all other possibilities. "In the end, 40 neurologists voted. Two-thirds said it was PLS, and the other third said it was something not yet known," Luigart said.

The disease ended his career as a pilot and his physical lifestyle, which included being a National Ski Patrol member, playing squash and bicycling.

Before being medically retired from the Navy in 1996, Luigart headed the team at the Department of the Navy's Information Network Program Office that helped design the Navy's CIO office.

"He's a great visionary on the IT side," said Ron Turner, the Navy's deputy CIO. Turner has known Luigart for more than 10 years and served as his deputy at INPO. "He knows how to get things done through people working together."

In the private sector, Luigart most recently served as the chief technology officer for Just Medicine Inc., Norcross, Ga., where he helped develop new mobile clinical technologies. But his disability may have closed more doors than it opened in the business world.

"My disability didn't come up everywhere I interviewed in four years, but it happened more times than I'd like to admit," he said.

Luigart said part of the attraction of returning to the public sector was the "transparency" of the view the government took on his condition. "When I was weighing my [job] decision, I decided that if you can't look past my disability, then I don't want to work for you."

"PLS is not life-threatening, it's quality-of-life threatening," Luigart said.

He demonstrated that he can walk, but it is a stilted motion, and he can't open and close his hands as fast as he used to. Luigart, 45, said the logical course of the disease will leave his main limbs weak and uncontrollable by his 60s or 70s.

But that prospect hasn't stopped him from maintaining an optimism about life.

"My goal is just to keep having fun," he said with a smile.

The Craig Luigart File

Title: Chief information officer at the Education Department.

Background: Luigart, 45, was a career naval officer and pilot. He earned a master's degree in management information systems, graduating with distinction from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

At work: As Education CIO, he manages more than 300 information technology staff members and contractors, and he helps to develop next-generation educational processes that use emerging technologies.

Personal: He is married with two daughters, Kristen and Alyssa.

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