Government // Leadership
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9/7/2011
02:09 PM
John Foley
John Foley
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Federal IT's Revolving-Door Problem

Vivek Kundra's resignation as federal CIO underscores a nagging issue in government IT -- a lack of continuity among key decision makers.

Having jump-started Uncle Sam's move into cloud computing, Vivek Kundra is now aiming more broadly, pitching the idea of a "global cloud-first policy" and agreeing to advise the European Union on its cloud strategy. They're impressive next steps for the former federal CIO. How they will finish is an open question.

When Kundra joined the Obama administration in March 2009, he came in as a change agent set on overhauling the federal government's poorly managed and uncoordinated IT operations. In 29 months on the job, he spearheaded government-wide data center consolidation, launched TechStat project reviews, guided elements of the administration’s open government strategy, and promoted investment in continuous security-monitoring systems. In December, Kundra unveiled the granddaddy of all IT reforms, a 25-point plan that requires fed agencies to adopt shared services and "light" technologies, bolster IT program management, hone acquisition processes, and rethink IT budgeting.

Then Kundra headed for the door. He resigned last month to take a fellowship at Harvard University and, apparently, do some consulting work.

Did Kundra bail out of the job too soon? It would have been reasonable to expect him to stick with it for another year or two, to be a hands-on manager that helped agency CIOs knock down barriers, find the resources they need, and otherwise see projects through to completion.

In leaving the White House for academia, Kundra became the epitome of one of federal IT's biggest problems: the disappearing decision maker. One reason it's so hard to raise the performance of federal IT is the lack of continuity of IT leadership. The revolving door of CIOs and other top agency officials makes long-term fed IT planning and execution nearly impossible.

The Social Security Administration is a case in point. The agency, which runs legacy Cobol apps in a maxed out data center, is in desperate need of an IT overhaul. Yet the guy brought in to oversee that overhaul, Frank Baitman, resigned in July after only two years, following a reorg that left him with diminished authority. Any hopes of a seamless transformation ended with his departure.

In a White House meeting of public and private sector CIOs arranged by InformationWeek earlier this year, top corporate CIOs identified the ephemeral nature of government IT leadership as a troublesome issue. "Constancy of purpose is really important," Dave Bent, the CIO of United Stationers, told Kundra and a half-dozen government CIOs in the room. Bent’s been in his job for eight years, making it possible to devise a customer-driven IT strategy at United Stationers -- and see that strategy through. (See Bent describe it in this video.)

That three-hour White House meeting had been called by Kundra, who wanted to brainstorm with business CIOs on best practices. Halfway into the meeting, Kundra excused himself -- something else had come up on his calendar -- much to the surprise of the other CIOs in the room, half of whom had traveled to Washington for the discussion. Here one minute, gone the next. It was an unwelcome example of the very phenomenon that the private sector CIOs said is a root cause of federal IT's problems.

This isn't to say that Kundra did a bad job as federal CIO. He gets high marks for his vision of how to transform federal IT, for innovations like the IT Dashboard and Data.gov, for making agency CIOs more accountable, and for his emphasis on cloud computing. For these reasons, InformationWeek named Kundra our Chief Of The Year in 2009. At the time, however, we warned that "vision without execution is an all-too-familiar story in government technology."

Short-lived IT policy doesn’t sit well with the rank and file. "After stirring it up, demanding change with no funding to back it up, a key official leaves their post. How many of us career feds are fed up with this routine?" commented one InformationWeek reader when Kundra's resignation became public. "Once an IT strategy is approved, there should be some commitment by OMB to see it through."

Kundra's unfinished business now falls to Steven VanRoekel, the newly appointed federal CIO. Within a few days of taking the job, VanRoekel detailed new responsibilities for agency CIOs. Kundra had made "redefining the role" of agency CIOs one of the objectives of his 25-point IT reform plan. It's encouraging to see VanRoekel forge ahead with that plan. Obviously, though, he doesn't have the same vested interest in making it work that Kundra, the reform plan's author, had.

Agency CIOs' new responsibilities, as described by VanRoekel, include taking a lead role in overseeing IT investments, eliminating duplicate systems, hiring qualified IT program managers, and implementing continuous monitoring and other cybersecurity measures. Those are excellent objectives. But they'll succeed only if agency CIOs -- and their bosses -- stick around long enough to finish what they've started.

John Foley, Editor of InformationWeek Government, can be reached at jpfoley@techweb.com. On Twitter, he's @jfoley09.

In the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: As federal agencies close data centers, they must drive up utilization of their remaining systems. That requires a well-conceived virtualization strategy. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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