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Kundra's Management Challenges

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra's job is different from others whom we've named as InformationWeek's Chief of the Year in the past in a few big ways that make it especially challenging.
Federal CIO Vivek Kundra's job is different from others whom we've named as InformationWeek's Chief of the Year in the past in a few big ways that make it especially challenging.The 2009 chief of the year (read our story here) is certainly younger, and the federal government's $76 billion IT budget dwarfs those of any other organization. However, Kundra's two big biggest differences are that first, his job isn't driven by traditional profit motives and second, many of his subordinates report to him only via a dotted line. In some ways, these two issues play together, and they've been challenges that have played a role in creating what top officials like OMB director Peter Orszag note as a gap between IT in the private and public sectors.

Unlike in the private sector, where Wall Street can make or break IT decisions, the government doesn't have the same forcing mechanisms for IT performance and for determining what should be the next project to pursue. Second, the reporting structure in the federal government is one of typical bureaucracy. Dozens of federal agency CIOs report to Kundra, but only indirectly. That means that while Kundra sits as chair of the federal CIO council, there are limits of what he can require of agencies or demand of budget and system decisions.

Kundra's peers say he stands out in his ability not only to strategize, but to execute. Take his ability to understand that a drop of sunshine can go a long way when it's tax dollars and not supply and demand at work, and that citizen engagement is the name of the game, which has played out in his use of dashboards and full embrace of the administration's transparency initiatives, both as federal CIO and before as CTO of Washington, D.C.

"His goal has never been innovation merely for innovations' sake, but innovation to get results in service to the public," Virginia governor Tim Kaine said in an e-mail that didn't make it into our story. "Vivek has a limitless imagination, and combined with his agility in the structures of government, I have the utmost confidence that he will continue to do great work for President Obama."

One story, which also didn't make it into our feature, is particularly telling. Earlier this year, President Obama called on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to partner with Kundra, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, and federal chief performance officer Jeff Zients to find ways to improve the immigrant application experience.

Kundra took an idea and ran with it. "Vivek very quickly helped to think through how transparency and open government could instill more confidence if we could publish average turnaround times in a forum online for visa and other application processing time, by office," Chopra says.

The effect would be two-fold, Kundra thought. First, immigrants could now find out exactly where they stood in line to get their green card or visa and check on processing times for specific forms at US-CIS field offices around the country, comparing them with national averages and national goals. Second, placing that data online at the hands of the public could put pressure on US-CIS field offices to make them more efficient.

Kundra then acknowledged the need to separate this effort from a larger, more complex modernization project currently underway at US-CIS. "When you have a multi-year project plan, it's challenging to thoughtfully introduce any new innovation without disrupting or adjusting requirements," Chopra says. And yet, that's exactly what happened: the team delivered the site within 90 days, and though it required shifting some money around, it didn't end up requiring any additional budget expenditure.

"When you put it together, he sees the ability for something like the IT Dashboard to really jump start his larger strategy for how to change the way IT projects are done and then puts his head down and gets it done within 10 weeks," Zients says.