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12/17/2009
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Chief Of The Year: Vivek Kundra

The federal CIO is driving change within the government's lumbering IT operations. A lengthy to-do list will test his ideas and power of persuasion.

On the wall of Vivek Kundra's Washington, D.C., office hangs a poster-sized IT diagram with such fine-grained detail that it strains the eye to study it. The diagram, showing the computing infrastructure of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was created to expose data that could be made publicly available as part of President Obama's government "transparency" initiative. Kundra, appointed the nation's first federal CIO in March, has learned that it's not enough to mandate data disclosure; he must get involved.

"I'm not just going to operate at the 100,000-foot level," says the 35-year-old, Indian-born Kundra. "I'm going to get at the atomic level, get into the enterprise architecture, study your information models, and figure out how we achieve those objectives."

The job of opening the government's databases to the public--complicated by the need to ensure security, privacy, confidentiality, and data quality--is huge, and Kundra will be the first to admit that most of the work lies ahead. In fact, that's true for everything on his plate: reducing the number of federal data centers, transitioning government agencies to cloud services, bolstering cybersecurity, improving IT project performance, and engaging the public over the Web.

With such a long, unfinished to-do list, you might say that we're premature in naming Kundra InformationWeek's Chief of the Year. But that's where we landed, and here's why: The federal CIO, now nine months into the job, has demonstrated a compelling vision for overhauling the government's lumbering IT operations (with 71,000 federal IT workers and more than 10,000 IT systems), and his progress is so far impressive.

Kundra, for example, has put the feds out in front of many private sector companies in the move to cloud computing. The Data.gov site has grown from just 47 data sets when introduced in May to more than 115,000 today. And the recently launched federal IT Dashboard--a display of IT project status that corporations would do well to mimic--has not only given the public visibility into the performance of Uncle Sam's big-ticket IT projects, but put agency CIOs on notice that execution matters.

"It's a forcing model to say, 'So, how are you managing your projects?'" says Kundra from his office on the Old Executive Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, a stone's throw from the White House.

Despite its $76 billion IT budget, the federal government trails the private sector in many areas of technology implementation. "We have a lot of great ideas and thousands of studies" on IT strategy, Kundra says, but ultimately, "there's been failed execution."

The U.S. government has a long line of IT flops, from the FBI's defunct $170 million virtual case file system to problems that will force the Census Bureau to forgo the use of mobile devices and spend $800 million more than expected on the 2010 census. Thirty-year-old Cobol programs still chug away in government data centers, while siloed IT systems are as much a result of organizational rigidity as technical limitations.

Chief Of The Year Report
For more in-depth analysis on federal CIO Vivek Kundra, access our complete report.

What you'll find:

• A transcript of our interview with Kundra, in which he describes his IT strategy, including the move to agile management and shared services platforms

• Our assessment of the job ahead and how Kundra's performance should be measured

• Detailed summary of Kundra's professional background

Download this Analytics Report
Kundra knows the feds can do better. He sees the vast array of technologies that are available to consumers and businesses and thinks: Why can't we have that, too? One way, he says, is to introduce the same kind of "Darwinian pressures" in public sector technologies that drive innovation and productivity in the private sector.

He'll have to cut through a thick bureaucracy to succeed. Dozens of government agency CIOs report to him, but only indirectly. Kundra has a hand in IT policy setting, but there are limits to what he can require of agencies. And while Kundra has a voice in IT budget decisions, so do agency CIOs and their bosses, Congress, and other officials in the Office of Management and Budget, where Kundra works. "Vivek is leading through persuasion and the policy tools within OMB," says federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, who works closely with Kundra, though in a more industry-facing role.

As director of the federal CIO Council, Kundra meets regularly with the CIOs of federal agencies and departments. "We're working very closely on the budget side--very, very tightly integrated--with the agency CIOs and internally within the budget side of OMB," in an effort to tie IT spending to administration and OMB policy, he says.

Jeffrey Zients, the nation's chief performance officer, says Kundra brings a mix of skills that make him well suited for this job. "Across 20 years in the private sector, I've worked with dozens of CIOs," says Zients, who was a management consultant before joining the Obama administration. "Some are strong operators, and others are good strategists. Often times those two things are not correlated, and they're often inversely correlated. Vivek is in a league of his own, because he's both."

Kundra got off to a rocky start. One week after his appointment as federal CIO on March 5, the FBI raided the office of the CTO in Washington, D.C., where Kundra formerly worked, and arrested two workers on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery. Kundra took a leave of absence, but was back on the job within days, informed that he wasn't a target of the investigation.

With that episode behind him, Kundra quickly got to work. His official responsibilities: directing policy and strategic planning for federal IT; overseeing federal IT spending, enterprise architecture, system interoperability, and information sharing; and ensuring IT security and privacy across the government. In the process, Kundra is charged with using technology, in the words of Obama, to "improve performance and lower the cost of government operations."

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