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Outgoing Federal CIO: Focus On Execution

The new federal CIO must focus on execution, not just policy, if the government's IT infrastructure and operations are to improve, says Vivek Kundra.

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If given the chance, outgoing federal CIO Vivek Kundra, who will leave his post next month for a stint at Harvard University, would advise his successor place a "huge focus" on execution of the IT agenda that's already been laid out during Kundra's two-year tenure.

"The blueprint has been laid out, but if you look at federal IT, it's not immune to the law of entropy--everything will move toward disorder," Kundra told the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on Friday. "My advice would be to be aware of entropy and make sure that you're really, really focused on execution, not just on policies. You need to roll up your sleeves and get some work done."

Kundra, who was invited to speak to the advisory council to reflect on his tenure as federal CIO, will leave office with many of his plans still unfinished. Data center consolidation, cloud computing, continuous security monitoring, and open government each remain incomplete or uncertain, and Kundra's successor will need to pick up where Kundra left off, in the midst of a transition from planning to real execution.

In his remarks, he cautioned that too often, officials come into the White House with a belief that they're only going to focus on policy, and while that might lead to good ideas, it doesn't necessarily lead to accomplishments. "Every single day, I would sit down with agency CIOs and push them in that direction," Kundra said.

Looking forward, Kundra said that he anticipated a number of issues to remain on the horizon. One of the foremost of these issues is inflexible federal funding, a problem Kundra has had trouble making headway on in his discussions with Congress. He noted that it still can take two years for a project to go from conception to funding, a time frame that is far too long in the world of technology, where innovations come fast and furious and such delays can make projects obsolete before they ever get built.

Funding problems also factor in the failure of the federal government to take full advantage of a common data architecture, common IT platforms and unified fiber networks, Kundra said in response to a question from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. "The biggest problem, I always say, is how we fund IT," Kundra said. "That's a pretty serious issue."

Kundra pointed out that there was no congressional committee devoted to looking at federal IT spending across the board from a horizontal perspective, and that funding is instead appropriated bureau by bureau in such a way that agencies are typically forbidden from sharing funds.

Cybersecurity also factored heavily. For example, he said that the government hasn't yet figured out how to deal with data sovereignty--ownership of data and where it resides--and cloud computing. Many agencies currently want data only to be stored within U.S. borders, but, as Kundra noted, if every country approaches cloud computing the same way, that creates problems for the industry, which would be forced to try to host data in every country.

Kundra said more education is needed on the value and importance of continuous monitoring that focuses on security at the data level. "It's much more operational, but there needs to be more education," he said.

Kundra also criticized what he portrayed as a too-often limited pool of vendors for federal IT and IT services. "We almost have an IT cartel within federal IT," he said. "A lot of these companies benefit because they understand federal IT procurement, not because they're providing the best technology. How do we allow non-traditional companies to compete?"

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