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With Federal CIO, Obama's Off To A Decent Start, But ...

Thanks for listening, President Obama. The responsibilities you've carved out for Vivek Kundra, your newly appointed federal CIO, are roughly in line with those I recommended in a recent column. Now the devil is in the execution.

Thanks for listening, President Obama. The responsibilities you've carved out for Vivek Kundra, your newly appointed federal CIO, are roughly in line with those I recommended in a recent column. Now the devil is in the execution.The worry was that you'd task your top tech official with so many priorities that he wouldn't know where to start. Instead, Kundra -- former CTO of the District of Columbia -- will focus on how government agencies buy, use, manage, and coordinate information technology. That's still a monumental undertaking, of course, but at least you've set aside the weighty matters of national IT policy and competitiveness for a separate federal CTO, still to be named. (I had recommended that you leave those broad policy matters to the Commerce Department, specific agencies, and/or private sector leaders, but I'll reserve judgment on your federal CTO plan pending your filling that position.)

Mr. President, I had asked you to pick someone "who knows his or her way around Washington, but not someone so grounded in 'government IT' that fresh thinking becomes impossible." You've delivered. Before he was named D.C.'s CTO almost two years ago, Kundra, now 34 years old, served as assistant secretary of commerce and technology for Virginia, and earlier he had served as director of infrastructure technology for Arlington, Va. -- so he knows the local ropes. Kundra made his name, in part, as an early adopter of Google's Web-based apps and as a proponent of open source, social networking, and other cutting-edge technologies. And Kundra's portfolio management approach to projects seems especially relevant today. As the D.C. CTO, he hired a team of analysts to track projects, bundling the smaller ones into "funds," killing the ones going nowhere, and freeing up capital for those with the most upside. There will be plenty of opportunity for Kundra to exercise that disciplined approach across government agencies.

Mr. President, I also had recommended that you "lean toward a practitioner, a multinational CIO or someone with similar chops who understands tech architecture, purchasing, deployment, management, systems integration -- and people leadership -- on a massive, visionary scale." Here, Kundra's resumé is fairly short. In D.C., he ran a 600-person staff and oversaw 86 agencies, but it wasn't a world-class IT organization. Earlier in his career, as VP of marketing for Evincible Software, which specialized in identity management, and as CEO of Creostar, where he advised clients on IT governance and strategy, he did gain experience with how technology is developed and sold, but those were small, niche companies.

I also advised you to clearly define the responsibilities of your federal IT leader. It's reassuring that you're now separating oversight of government agency IT (fed CIO) from the more wonkish IT trade, innovation, and labor issues (fed CTO). But I hope you're not just creating more red tape. Please resist the temptation to attach the "czar" label to your CIO or CTO. (Czars didn't work out in imperial Russia, much less in the capitalist/socialist U.S.) Put your tech chiefs in a position to get things done, not just ruminate about frameworks and courses of action.

Terrific that the fed CIO reports to you, Mr. President, and not some political hack. As you put Kundra to work, we await your appointment of a fed CTO and your thinking on how the two will work together to make this country an IT leader in practice and industry. Keep us posted.

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