Kundra Had Vision, Next Federal CIO Needs Speed

The long-term plan for federal IT reform has only just begun to be implemented, so Kundra's successor will have to hit the ground running.
When federal CIO Vivek Kundra leaves his post for Harvard in mid-August, he will leave behind a comprehensive, long-term plan for federal IT reform that has only begun to be implemented. Kundra's replacement will have to hit the ground running to execute on that strategy. Kundra himself has said as much.

But it won't be easy. As the nation's first official federal CIO, Kundra had the luxury of coming in to a new administration with a mandate to drive change in federal IT, which led to top-down initiatives from open government to cloud computing to data center consolidation. In a congressional hearing last week, Kundra said his naivety about federal IT was his greatest asset in the early going because it allowed him to ask simple questions and think big.

Naivety won't be an asset for the next federal CIO. Kundra's successor doesn't get to start from square one. He or she will inherit works in progress in the middle of a presidential term, in the thick of a budget cycle that brings pressure from all sides, and a federal IT workforce that's feeling the strain of having to do too much with limited resources.

In this environment, an executive from inside federal government, someone who knows how to navigate the federal bureaucracy with all its idiosyncrasies, may be the best person to replace Kundra. Private sector experience would be an asset as agencies increasingly look to adopt best IT practices from the business world, but federal experience is almost essential.

The main risks to the IT transformation already underway in Washington are that someone comes in who doesn't see eye-to-eye with current plans, focuses too much on policy and not enough on execution, or simply doesn't know how to get things done in government.

"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 recently. "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."

In conversations over the last few weeks, four names have come up repeatedly as possible successors to Kundra, and each is a veteran of federal IT: Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires, GSA associate administrator for citizen services and innovative technologies Dave McClure, Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker, and Kundra deputy (and former EPA CIO) Lisa Schlosser. The most likely to be named, in my mind, are Spires and McClure, though the White House will certainly cast the net wider as it looks for the best candidate.

Spires already manages one of the most federated agencies in government, the Department of Homeland Security, which was assembled from 22 agencies and departments. He leads the Federal Data Center Consolidation initiative and helps herd agency CIOs in his role as vice chairman of the federal CIO Council. Spires is a technologist by trade, has served multiple stints as an agency CIO, and worked in the private sector. He writes regularly about federal IT on the CIO Council website, so he's got the evangelism part of the job down. And DHS' data center consolidation initiative is a model for other agencies.

GSA's McClure has an accomplished career in both the public and private sectors, and an educational background in public policy and IT. His office jump-started the federal cloud computing initiative and platforms like Before returning to government service, he led Gartner's government research, served on the Obama transition team, and was a government watchdog with the now-defunct Council for Excellence in Government. Before that, he spent 18 years in federal IT and writing reports for the Government Accountability Board.

Veterans Affairs' Baker is one of the most respected CIOs in government. He works closely with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, and his dedication to rigorous program management, including his willingness to eliminate failing IT projects, has made him well known in federal IT. However, the federal CIO job would arguably be a step down for Baker. At VA, Baker enjoys a lot of IT authority as CIO, whereas Kundra has more limited authority to get things done across the federal bureaucracy.

Schlosser, whose official title is deputy administrator in the office of e-government and IT, is well respected inside the beltway. She's been CIO of the EPA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, CISO at the Department of Transportation, a business executive, and a military intelligence officer. Still, she's not as well known as Baker, McClure, or Spires.

Each of these four has a strong resume to become the next federal CIO. Whoever takes the job will also need a laser focus on making things happen.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer