March 13, 2009
The walls of Vivek Kundra's office in the Old Executive Office Building are noticeably bare, except for two side-by-side posters taking up a huge swath of one wall, each loaded with color-coded bar charts and graphs detailing the U.S. federal IT budget. The posters say a lot: The federal government's new CIO is a data junkie, and he has a mountain of work ahead of him.
Named the federal government's top IT operations and strategy leader March 5, Kundra's trying to get his arms around its $71 billion in IT spending. He has spent recent weekends reading budgets and project proposals, and he has a 30-person team analyzing the IT spending of each government agency "line by line," he says. As CTO of Washington, D.C., Kundra took a similar approach, with a team of analysts tracking tech projects daily as if they were managing a stock portfolio.
Kundra says citizens should measure his work by how well he connects them to government services and information. Two Web sites will be early test cases for how well he delivers on President Obama's stated goal for increased government transparency. Recovery.gov is supposed to publicize stimulus package spending, and Data.gov--not yet live--is to do the same for government spending overall.
But don't count on Kundra to cut the government's IT budget, even as his team combs for waste. He says every dollar is needed to make government more efficient. Still, Kundra says he'll kill IT projects that aren't making the grade, which he can do through the Office of Management and Budget, where he reports to director Peter Orszag, who in turn reports to Obama. "Spending money on technology is good, but at the same time we want to make sure we have outcomes for those investments," Kundra says.
Look for Kundra to push Web apps and cloud computing. As D.C.'s CTO, he gave employees access to Google Apps for online collaboration. He offered a prize to the developer who created the most useful mashup app using District data online. As for the cloud, he says he'd consider moving public-facing data that isn't sensitive. Kundra already brought together 11 agency CIOs to discuss how the government could use more free Web systems and tools. "Why would we invest in infrastructure and technologies if they're available for free?" he says.
That plan will likely include the use of "private clouds," using Internet-like IT architectures inside government data centers to save money, break the silos and information stovepipes that plague the bureaucracy by creating common IT infrastructure, and avoid the security concerns inherent in public cloud computing. "We've got to be able to abstract the infrastructure from the applications," Kundra says. "For example, when you look at security, it's easier to secure when you concentrate things than when you distribute them across the government."
Kundra's relationship with the agency CIOs will be critical. While he can kill IT projects that don't pass his group's muster, he has to deliver on the budgets and mandates Congress passes, and he'll politically have a hard time killing a project central to the agenda of, say Homeland Security's secretary. He can't hire and fire agency CIOs, who report to an agency head as well as to him.
And he'll have to do this amid distractions that are part of life inside the beltway. Just last week, the FBI raided Kundra's former D.C. government offices as part of an investigation of an employee. Kundra's not a target, but it made headlines, typical of the kind of distractions he'll face.
Kundra has some great ideas for changing government IT practices. He'll need a lot more than data to turn them into reality.
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