At the forefront: Chief information officer Sherry Swackhamer streamlines county systems, saves taxpayer money
When Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen presented his Excellence Award to Chief Information Officer Sherry Swackhamer on June 13, he heaped praise on the woman who has long been at the forefront of saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
“Sherry is a fabulous leader,” Cogen says. “She brings good humor and grace to a very difficult job and she’s shown herself able to make tough choices that significantly improve the organization’s success.”
It’s been nearly two years since Cogen launched Multnomah Evolves — a project designed to improve cost-effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of county services. Swackhamer, who also serves as the director of the Department of County Assets, has been at the helm preparing local government to work more efficiently in today’s lightning-fast environment.
She has led the switch from an expensive Microsoft email program to the less-costly Google platform. She helped improve operations in the county IT Department. She has shaken things up in the organization by leading change. But she isn’t done.
Swackhamer also implemented a direct-shipping process for the county’s inventory system and completely modernized the organization’s software and computer systems.
And the savings from all those changes are huge, totaling $1.8 million. That’s money that helps preserve vital services to the community.
“We have to be on the cutting edge,” Swackhamer says. “We don’t have the money to not be on the cutting edge. We have to use the technology we have and the dollars that we have to the best use for our customers and our citizens.”
To do that, Swackhamer says, people inside the county must be willing to change old habits.
Swackhamer is accustomed to change. Born in Oklahoma, she grew up the youngest of three children on her family’s small cattle ranch. She remembers her parents always set high expectations for their children. Hard work, she recalls, was the order of the day.
“My dad was an entrepreneur,” Swackhamer says. “He always worked for himself.”
And with two older brothers, she developed a good work ethic that carried over to school and sports.
She maintained straight-As in high school and recalls having successful softball and basketball careers. At 5’1”, she faced challenges on the basketball court but she didn’t let those stop her from lettering and being a starter all four years.
“I had three black eyes while I was in high school,” she says. “I thought that I could get just as many rebounds as everyone else.”
She honed her outside shot. When a new coach told her she needed to change her free throw form, she reluctantly obliged and found the adjustment wasn’t so bad after all.
“It’s really hard to correct bad habits,” she says. “But it instilled some confidence in me, knowing that I could change. Knowing that others had confidence in me, too.”
Studying accounting at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Swackhamer kept her parents in the back of her mind.
“My parents put three kids through college,” she says. “My dad and my mom didn’t go to college. But they were the generation of: ‘My children will.’”
Swackhamer had a major in accounting until she found out she couldn’t leave without declaring a minor. She first thought she’d choose general business, but her counselor wouldn’t allow it.
“‘Computers are the future,’” Swackhamer remembers her college counselor saying. “‘I’m making you take computer science.’”
Together, the subjects she studied prepared her for project management. She spent 20 years in accounting, auditing and IT positions before joining Multnomah County in 2003.
When she took the CIO position, the IT department suffered from a lack of innovation. She implemented a new system called “The four Rs.” Re-think, respect, recognize and respond to help drive culture change.
“She took an organization that had been one of the county’s longtime weaknesses and turned it into a real strength,” Cogen recalls. “She did the miraculous task of operating it more efficiently and, at the same time, offering more services.”
For Swackhamer, improving the IT Department involved using money-saving open-source software. The conversion to the Google platform saved taxpayers about $500,000 a year in licensing fees and staffing.
She continued to spot inefficiencies in the organization, encouraging her colleagues to “change the story we’re telling.”
She conceived a new quarterly review process, meant to see if the right things were being prioritized, and she started to catch others’ attention. That’s when Cogen promoted her to run the new Department of County Assets – a place that could “benefit from her kind of mindset.”
Despite seeing the number of staff reporting to her double, Swackhamer has embraced the change and helped oversee the consolidation of departments.
“It’s very difficult to create change,” Swackhamer says. “People were suspicious and defensive of their jobs, rightfully so. But ultimately, when you want to change something that has been done differently for 20 years, it seems personal.”
Based on recommendations from the Corragio report, Swackhamer led the Multnomah Evolves project to close the county’s Central Stores – the organization’s central warehouse. The county shut down the warehouse without a loss of service. With Multco Marketplace, a new county purchasing website, supplies can be ordered as needed. The shift saved about $1.2 million in initial savings and will save $500,000 annually.
“We’re not an organization that wants to slash and burn,” Cogen says. “It’s a balancing act. We want to operate as efficiently as we can, but we also want to do it in a humane way that recognizes people who have dedicated their lives to this organization, and Sherry has done a good job at that.”
And Swackhamer still spots ways to improve that efficiency.
She’s looking to outsource the maintenance of the county’s fleet of vehicles by partnering with City of Portland and private car-sharing companies to enhance the aging motor pool.
Swackhamer successfully conducted a national search for a facilities manager and she is in the final stages of contract negotiations in buying a new phone system for the county. She hopes to have the equipment purchased in July.
Every day that she’s at work, the awards seem to stack up for Swackhamer. The Chair’s Excellence Award was presented to her recently as part of Multnomah County’s Employee Award Ceremony that was held on June 13 in the county boardroom.
Recently, the IT organization won two National Association of Counties awards for the Google transformation. She also was chosen for the InnoTech Oregon 2011 IT Public Sector Executive of the Year award.
Yet Swackhamer still finds time to play. Growing up on a cattle ranch, Swackhamer took up barrel racing and cattle showing at a young age. That hobby was passed on to her 19-year-old daughter, Madison Swackhamer. Sherry also loves to bike and sometimes golf with her husband. And when she’s not working or volunteering at Schoolhouse Supplies, an organization that provides low-income students with basic school supplies, she’s shopping for shoes and visiting art galleries.
“I don't know what I would do without her,” Madison Swackhamer says of her mom. “She inspires me to always try my hardest, and she is my role model.”
Sherry Swackhamer hesitates at taking any credit for her accomplishments. Rather, she points to her DCA and IT teams. “Change isn’t one person,” she says. “It takes courage for someone to step up and say ‘I’ll lead it.’ But that’s just one very small part of it. Leading without anyone behind you or above you isn’t very successful.”