Chief Of The Year: Vivek Kundra

The federal CIO is driving change within the government's lumbering IT operations. A lengthy to-do list will test his ideas and power of persuasion.

J. Nicholas Hoover, Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

December 18, 2009

5 Min Read

The Red Zone

The IT Dashboard, introduced in July, is how Kundra and dozens of agency CIOs will attempt to monitor and manage their way to better results. The dashboard shows general information on more than 7,000 federal IT projects and detailed info, including on-time and on-schedule ratings, on almost 800 of those projects.

"The biggest complaint before we went live was that [agencies] really didn't have this data, they didn't have this information, which raised a very fundamental question: How are you managing your portfolio at a departmental level if you're not looking at it every 30 days?" Kundra says, adding that even monthly reviews aren't enough for good project management.

In the past, agencies submitted quarterly reports that Kundra says were seldom read. Now that the data is public, it's open for everyone to see.

The availability of such information has gotten the attention of politicians and senior government officials who might otherwise be unaware of projects such as Homeland Security's Automated Commercial Environment/International Trade Data System or the Department of Transportation's IT Combined Infrastructure, which together accounted for nearly $550 million in spending in fiscal 2009 alone--and both of which were deemed "significant concerns" by the CIOs overseeing them.

That kind of visibility is causing long-overdue discussions to take place between CIOs and the agency heads for whom they work. Kundra says some federal CIOs hadn't met with their cabinet secretaries in years. As soon as the IT Dashboard went live, however, cabinet secretaries called CIOs into their offices to explain why particular projects were in the IT Dashboard "red zone," designating that they were dangerously overbudget, behind schedule, or both. At last check, 52 major IT projects fell into the red zone.

The OMB is using the IT Dashboard for budgeting, inspectors general are using it for investigations, and Congressmen are applying it for oversight. "I have monthly calls with the Hill," Kundra says. "Every time updates come in, they're asking, 'Why hasn't department X updated? What's going on?'"

The IT Dashboard is still in beta; an update is in the works. The next version will focus on usability, data quality, and best practices, and Kundra says it will increasingly be used to make tough decisions around IT investments. Already, the Department of Veterans Affairs has put the kibosh on 12 projects that were deemed too problematic to continue. "That's what we're going to be seeing in the second year--a move toward using the data that's been generated at a frequency that will actually give us the intelligence that we need to make those types of decisions and shift in capital," says Kundra.

More Transparency, the government's public-facing data portal, has its conceptual roots in a data repository Kundra built as CTO of Washington, D.C., and the model has now been emulated by other local, state, and even national governments. The site has been one of the highest-profile IT efforts of the Obama presidency, though it, too, is in the early stages. So far, contains mostly "geodata" on political boundaries--voting districts, for example--a mere drop in the bucket of government information.

Kundra's push to expand the amount and types of data on requires overcoming ingrained practices. He says resistance to change in federal agencies and departments may be the biggest obstacle he faces in delivering on the president's IT-related priorities. "One of the most difficult parts is velocity, the speed at which we need to get things done versus the organic friction that exists," he says.

Vivek's Vita

Federal CIO: Appointed by President Obama in March 2009. Responsibilities include federal IT policy and planning, enterprise architecture, information sharing, IT security. Spearheads open government efforts such as and IT Dashboard as well as cloud computing adoption.

CTO, Washington, D.C.: Created municipal data catalog; launched Apps for Democracy development contest; adopted Google Apps for district employees; developed and deployed portfolio management system.

Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology, state of Virginia: Developed BI dashboard for state procurement; assembled trade delegation that visited India resulting in a $99 million investment in Virginia.

Other: Adjunct professor, University of Maryland University College; founded tech consultancy Creostar; VP of marketing for Evincible Software (acquired by Exostar); director of infrastructure technologies for Arlington County, Va.; consultant, SAIC; founder of robotics startup.

Graduate, Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, University of Virginia

MS, information systems management, University of Maryland, University College

BA, behavioral and social sciences, University of Maryland

Earlier this month, Kundra and fed CTO Chopra unveiled the Obama administration's Open Government Directive, a document that details steps agencies must take to become more transparent and to engage the public in collaborative and "participatory" government. In an attempt to hasten progress, the directive lays out 45-, 60-, 90-, and 120-day deliverables.

The OMB recently disclosed plans to move from beta phase with a detailed strategy of next steps for agencies. The new policy isn't just some toothless guidance. OBM plans to track agency participation, using metrics such as the number of data sets published, citizen ratings, and use of metadata.

In addition to picking up the pace, Kundra is steering agencies toward more manageable IT projects. "Let's start small," he says. Kundra espouses the benefits of agile management; his office has created a best practices document on the upgrade to, which it's sharing with other agencies as an example of how that's done.

"I don't think we've been doing a good job historically with the investments we are doing," Kundra said to an audience of private sector CIOs at the InformationWeek 500 conference in September. "They've been too agency-centric, too siloed. We need to make sure [federal agency] CIOs are focused on looking at how they can serve the American people, and get away from a model of investing heavily in infrastructure where it doesn't yield value."

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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