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Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton
Answers All Comers - August/September 2004


What talented Texan did "The Terminator" tap to help direct the California Performance Review?


Deputy Comptroller Billy Hamilton. Thanks for the question.

Employees of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts will recognize this Q-and-A format from Ask Billy, a forum on the office intranet. Billy Hamilton, who is second in command of the agency, has answered more than 9,000 questions from employees in his column since it debuted in November 2000.

The column covers everything imaginable. In addition to candid responses to policy questions, Hamilton addresses complaints, suggestions and the meaning of life, along with the odd recipe request. His responses to even the thorniest questions include wit, wisdom and an apt graphic or two—and, when appropriate, a song lyric.

"One of the things that made me crazy when I was first working here was that things would come down from the front office and you never really knew what the motivation was," says Hamilton, who started working at the Comptroller's office in 1977. "It's useful in this electronic age to filter through the layers and communicate directly with people. People are curious about what management thinks, and people are curious about the world at large."

In addition to answers to sometimes complex (and occasionally obscure) questions, the column provides employees with an outlet for their opinions.

"There was almost nothing to it until we came up with a method of making the questions anonymous," Hamilton explains. "You've got to be careful that you don't subvert what you hire managers to do, but people have legitimate issues. A lot of times they just have things they'd like to get off their chests, and I don't mind that. People have a right to say that perfume or smoking at the building entrance bothers them."

Ask Billy also includes discussions of current events and resources for dealing with issues such as identity theft. "A big jolt in the arm to the column was September 11," Hamilton says. "It gave people a venue to express their sorrow and confusion."

But it is not all high-minded. "I try to balance it," he says. "I'll do an easy one about where pretzel salt comes from after a response on insurance that required research. I try to keep it fun and informative."

He makes a point to answer every question, taking time to work on Ask Billy at night and on weekends.

"It is very satisfying when you can do something about a problem," says Hamilton. "A lot of the issues that we face here go on forever. Sometimes it is nice to just tie up a loose end."

Action, action, action!

A recent request on Ask Billy was for an autographed photo of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor appointed Hamilton to co-chair a commission to recommend ways to cut waste and restructure state government. Hamilton took annual leave periodically to consult with California officials, and the state of California paid his expenses. (Unfortunately, his perks did not include pictures of the governor.)

Hamilton is a nationally recognized expert in the performance review process. During the past 13 years, he oversaw seven reviews in Texas, which he estimates helped save the state about $12 billion. He also helped create the Texas School Performance Review, which received the Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in 1999. In addition to California, he advised Oklahoma, North Carolina and Louisiana on their performance reviews and was a deputy director of the National Performance Review.

So what was it like to work with Gov. Schwarzenegger?

"The governor is an interesting guy who seems to be well informed about the issues he is dealing with in California," Hamilton answers. "He brings a tremendous amount of energy and a desire to really change things. 'Action, action, action!' is pretty much his and his staff's mantra. On the whole, he is positive, enthusiastic and every bit as big as you think he is."

Working with other states and on the federal level has given Hamilton a unique vantage point.

"It's striking just how good Texas government is when you set it side by side with other states," he says. "Although we do have our problems, that is a good lesson to learn and a compliment to all state employees."

Amazing insights and thoughtful compassion

Hamilton is no stranger to compliments himself. Harvey Kronberg put it this way in The Quorum Report, a respected non-partisan newsletter on Texas politics and government: "The first decision the newly elected comptroller made after assuming office was to lure long-time veteran Billy Hamilton from a lucrative private sector job to return as her deputy comptroller. She did so precisely because Hamilton's hire sent a message to the business and financial communities that the fiduciary role of the agency would not be politicized."

Ask Billy readers also don't skimp on the praise. Examples include "love your comments, consideration, amazing insights and thoughtful compassion" and "I think you are a real trooper to field all of these mundane questions and complaints—thanks for being there for us."

The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs presented him with its first Distinguished Alumni Award in 1987. The Texas State Business Administrators' Association named him Administrator of the Year in 1993. In 1998, he received the first Bob Bullock Award for Outstanding Public Stewardship at the Government Technology Conference (GTC). The GTC Advisory Board stated that the award honored "untiring participation and contribution toward a more effective government," "innovations that will improve the future well-being of all Texans" and "[having] a personal and dedicated commitment to public service, as did the award's namesake."

Former Comptroller Bob Bullock still looms large in Hamilton's memory.

"I learned a lot from every comptroller I've served, but I probably learned more from Mr. Bullock because I didn't know anything when I worked for him and he was so demanding," he says. "This comptroller is demanding, but I already know a lot. I think Mr. Bullock made a big impression on a lot of people's lives back then because we were young and untested but expected to perform from day one."

First "blue zinger"

Unbeknownst to Hamilton, the first time he met alone with Bullock, Bullock was interviewing him for the chief revenue estimator position.

"I had no notion that Bill Allaway, the great guy who was chief revenue estimator back then, was quitting," he recalls. "It was a surprise to get the call that I had the job. Just one hour later, I received my first 'blue zinger,' as blue memoranda from Mr. Bullock were known. It said, 'If you follow in a man's footsteps, you won't pass him.' Becoming chief revenue estimator in 1982 was really the turning point in my career. It's when I first learned that you can do a lot more than you think you can."

The Comptroller's office originally hired Hamilton away from the Texas Department of Community Affairs in 1977 to write an accounting manual for county governments. In 1986, he left the agency to be the executive director of the Select Committee on Tax Equity, a panel created by the Legislature to study the state's tax structure. In 1987, he became the director of state and local services for the Policy Economics Group of KPMG International in Washington, D.C. But Texas still beckoned. He returned to serve his first tour of duty as deputy comptroller from 1991 to 1998.

"Elected comptrollers are like the weather—they can affect the climate of the place for good or ill," he says. "This comptroller has made the climate positive and friendly. She's so nice to work for, but you have to stay on your toes to keep up with her."

In his current position, Hamilton oversees 2,800 employees. "I am lucky to have such a good group of people here," he acknowledges. "It makes it a lot easier to have this job. This agency is so complex, and there are so many possible things that could go wrong. Our people keep it amazingly together, and they work very hard."

Anyone can do anything

Even with such a distinguished career, Hamilton can quickly name his greatest accomplishment as "three really nice kids." And he credits his mother (who has made several notable appearances in Ask Billy) with the best advice he has received: "Anyone can do anything."

"I think people self-limit themselves a lot more than they need to," he says. "In the end, people are only really limited by how hard they are willing to work and how much time they are willing to invest. I tell my kids, 'You can do anything you set your mind to.'"

He also doesn't hesitate to say that his favorite part of the job is writing Ask Billy.

"Some people like chocolate and some like professional wrestling," he wrote in a response in the column. "I just like to write. I used to do it for a living, but that doesn't happen so much any more, unless you count speeches for the comptroller as writing—but she seldom gets into movie trivia or the ins and outs of workplace scent policy. So it is worth a little time to me to invest in coming up with something original (or at least marginally original).... I am not rich and famous but am undefeated in my family at Trivial Pursuit."

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Susan Combs
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
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