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12/17/2009
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Federal CIO Kundra Talks IT Strategy

Nine months into the job, Vivek Kundra discusses IT initiatives, the path ahead, and challenges in driving the Obama Administration's 'open government' agenda.

Vivek Kundra was appointed federal CIO by President Obama in March 2009, with a broad range of responsibilities, including strategic planning of federal IT, oversight of the government's $76 billion IT budget, and enterprise architecture. Since taking the job, Kundra has had a hand in the launch of the new "IT Dashboard," which provides information on the status of major investments, and Apps.gov, a portal for cloud computing services, among other initiatives. One of Kundra's primary mandates is to develop technologies and processes in support of Obama's call for open, transparent government.

Kundra works in the Old Executive Office Building on Pennsylvania Ave., adjacent to the White House, in the nation's capital. His office, with a view of the Washington Monument, includes poster-sized IT diagrams, a large screen PC monitor for technology demos, and photograph of Obama using the IT Dashboard. InformationWeek recently sat down with Kundra to discuss his strategy, major initiatives, and the challenge ahead.

InformationWeek: What's your overall strategy or philosophy as federal CIO?

Kundra: I begin with a simple question: Why do we have access to technology that’s far superior in our home lives than we do in the public sector? When we look at the public sector, what we see is that we've lagged behind when it comes to technology. We haven’t leveraged it as effectively and efficiently. A big part of it is that there's been failed execution. We have a lot of great ideas and thousands of studies that are out there in terms of how agencies should operate, how agencies should course correct, but we haven’t been able to embark on a strategy that thinks about the potential to unleash productivity of employees on the front line, that looks at government officials and thinks about how to arm them as information workers. What are the tools that government employees are going to need? And how do we introduce the same Darwinian pressures that we see in the consumer space in the public sector?

When we went live with Data.gov, it was with 47 data sets. It was basically bringing CIOs together across the federal government, talking about the challenges, talking about the power of unleashing data and how to create value and drive accountability consistent with what the President has been talking about in terms of a transparent, open and participatory government. We're following up with a detailed concept of operations now. The model here is that we've basically used an agile methodology in the same way as if you look at software development. This is the philosophy of agile management, which is, let's start small, launch in beta, be the beneficiary of thinking and divergent views and a battle of ideas around what is going to make the most sense and what is going to be of the greatest value, and then follow up with federal government-wide policy and execution. When we started, there was actually a small team of about 7 people, and I would spend 4 hours a day white-boarding with a team. Now, we've got over 200 people in the federal government working on Data.gov. When this concept of operations goes out, it talks about the entire domain around federal, state, local, international. The U.K. has launched a similar model. To make a long answer short, the key is to focus on execution, agile methodology, have a battle of ideas, and scale super-fast.

InformationWeek: What are you doing to make Data.gov more usable and thorough?

Kundra: We've got our key principles in terms of what do we want to do next with Data.gov, the key being that we want to focus on making sure that we democratize as much data as possible and that that data is targeted towards high-value data sets, so shifting the debate from just geodata to data that has the potential to fundamentally change the way this country operates from healthcare to energy to education. Now, the higher the value of the data set, the greater the deliberation that's required in terms of making sure that we're not in any way compromising privacy, national security, or confidentiality of the American people.

An area we've been working on, and this concept of operations gets to this, is how agencies will be measured as far as how many data sets they put out there, making sure that we're also going after those high-value data sets, so that we think about the potential for innovation, the creation of new applications, even rethinking IT. Why not start thinking about a model where we issue X prizes? We need a model where we can launch something in a fundamentally different way, not in a year-and-a-half procurement cycle.

InformationWeek: In the transparency initiatives, what are you doing to ensure better data quality and interoperable data?

Kundra: It comes back to a simple concept in physics, which is feedback and control loops. When you launch, whether it's an airplane or a precision guided missile, why that plane lands where it's supposed to or the missile hits the target is because you have constant feedback in terms of where you are in relation to your target. With a lot of the data that's out there, we haven't had a lot of feedback. This is something we're working on using the agile methodology I talked about and that we'll be launching soon, which is how we look at the entire $3.5 trillion dollars that we [the U.S. government] spend.

InformationWeek: What are some of your key accomplishments so far?

Kundra: We've got the ability to allow the American people to know what's going on with a lot of taxpayer dollars, $76 billion, the IT Dashboard. That's one. Two, game-changing approaches to IT expenditures, and our move toward cloud computing. The old world was very much focused on building more and more data centers, and what we're trying to do is shift the whole U.S. government. Changing culture is difficult, and it's not going to happen overnight, but when we started this strategy to move towards cloud computing in the form of Apps.gov, that's the second wave in terms of thinking about how we're going to bend the curve on IT expenditures and really focus on citizen-focused outcomes.

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