What FirstNet Needs in a New CEO

By James Careless

With the departure of FirstNet Authority (FNA) CEO Ed Parkinson in May 2022, the FNA is now seeking a new CEO. So far the search is unofficial, as the situation is still pretty fluid at the moment. According to reliable unnamed sources, the Department of Commerce and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) let their job search company contracts expire, and have released a Request for Proposal to find new search companies.

According to retired FirstNet Chair Sue Swenson, the CEO is the person who keeps FirstNet running. “Basically, they oversee the entire program,” she said. “One major part of their job is to make sure that the contract with AT&T is complied with. That’s pretty routine since that contract has been in place for five years. I think the more important part of the CEO’s role is to truly understand the evolving needs of public safety and ensure that those needs are translated into requirements for the FirstNet contractor whether it be new products, new processes and making sure that the money that comes back to the authority is invested in the proper things to advance public safety technology.”

Besides fulfilling the above duties, what qualities should the next FirstNet CEO bring to their post? Here’s what Swenson and retired FNA vice chair Jeff Johnson have to say on the subject.

They Should Be a First Responder

Departed CEO Parkinson first joined the FNA in 2013, after working on the House Homeland Security Committee and drafting the initial bill that got the ball rolling for FirstNet. His legislative experience was bolstered by a strong wireless industry presence on the FNA board, which Swenson said was appropriate for those early days. But times have changed: With FirstNet having found its footing, “I am a big believer in that it’s time for the CEO to have been a first responder in any discipline,” she said. “In fact, I actually recommended this back in 2018 when Jeff and I left the FNA board. I think some people have forgotten that this entity exists to serve public safety. So I think it’s well past time to have a public safety person as CEO.”

Jeff Johnson endorses Swenson’s position. “Because this is a public safety network and because public safety is so critical, I think it’s probably time to get a CEO that has a public safety background in charge of FirstNet,” he said..

They Should Have Solid Tech Skills

Because FirstNet is a technology-driven service, the next CEO “has to have a certain amount of technical competence to understand the network and the nuances of the network,” said Johnson. They also need to stay on top of technological advances in wireless communications and public safety, “because wireless networks are evolving all the time,” Swenson added. “It’s really important for the next CEO to understand that FirstNet is a living, breathing entity that has to continuously evolve to make sure that public safety does not get behind again.”

Good Listening and People Skills Required

As a government agency CEO working in Washington, the new FirstNet CEO will have to form alliances and constructive relationships with politicians and bureaucrats alike in order to get things done. This is why incident commanders with good listening skills would be well-suited to the position, said Johnson. “They get bonus points if they understand the federal system and how to move the ball inside it,” he observed.

“Obviously any leader needs to have the ability to engage with all constituencies,” Swenson said. When it comes to FirstNet, the constituencies include public safety, other government entities, the FirstNet staff, and contractor AT&T. As a result, the new CEO will have to be able to engage with all of these groups constructively, she said, “regardless of who the constituency is and with the ability to understand the audiences that they’re dealing with. So I think we’re going to need somebody who’s very comfortable going into situations that they might not be completely comfortable with.”

While doing all of this, the new FirstNet CEO will have to keep their actions in line with their overseers’ guidance. “The CEO should always execute the policy and vision set by the Board of Directors and the Department of Commerce,” said Johnson – “and keep public safety preeminent in their thoughts as they do it.”

Not in It for the Money

Contrary to public belief, people don’t get rich being civil servants. That’s what the private sector is for, and why so many government executives eventually move their careers to business. This being the case, applicants for the FirstNet CEO job should not be doing it for the money, because there’s not enough of it to justify the move. 

“This is not like a private sector job. It doesn’t pay like a private sector job,” Swenson said. “And so we’re going to need somebody for whom compensation is not the critical component for them doing this. They should also be willing to travel a lot and actually reside in Washington DC, because you’re on Capitol Hill and working with government agencies so much that you’ve got to be present here.”

A last piece of wisdom: Sue Swenson said the FirstNet CEO job could be ideal for someone who has “recently retired” from public safety. So veteran first responder leaders with pensions who can afford not to get rich are logical candidates for the position.


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