On Thursday, following weeks of speculation , Vivek Kundra was formally appointed to the new post of Chief Information Officer for the federal government.
He had previously served as the CTO for the District of Columbia, where he was responsible for managing technology operations at 86 city agencies. Before that, he worked as Virginia’s Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology.
He will work closely with the yet-to-be-named Chief Technology Officer to advance President Obama’s technology agenda. Of the announcement the President said:
Vivek Kundra will bring a depth of experience in the technology arena and a commitment to lowering the cost of government operations to this position. I have directed him to work to ensure that we are using the spirit of American innovation and the power of technology to improve performance and lower the cost of government operations. As Chief Information Officer, he will play a key role in making sure our government is running in the most secure, open, and efficient way possible.
Why Vivek Kundra
As CTO for the District of Columbia Kundra drew attention for his innovative approach to managing the District’s IT investments. This included his use of a stock portfolio approach for tracking projects, and his interest in encouraging public involvement and participation in government — an echo of Obama’s campaign promises.
At the District of Columbia he pioneered a new approach to public data with the creation of a CityWide Datawarehouse Data Catalog. It was established in 2006 as a means of allowing free access to government data sets. At the time, City Administrator Robert Bobb outlined the guiding principal for the program as enabling:
residents to better understand our government’s activities, thereby offering more opportunities to participate in improving the quality of life and promoting economic development in the District
The CityDW Data Catalog and Data Feeds provide access to permit, crime, service request and geographical data in multiple formats including Google Maps/Earth and XML. This transparency and openness of data, provides a platform upon which innovative civic applications can be created by members of the public.
The Apps for Democracy competition awarded prizes and recognition of new applications that visualized this data in a manner useful for all. The competition was a huge success with teams building all sorts of applications, from tools to help you find a carpool or parking meter, to apps that sent information about the crime level in your neighborhood to your iPhone. The competition resulted in 47 Applications being built in 30 days, and an estimated 4,000% return on investment.
He also set the standard for transparency and accountability through adopting Google Apps as a collaboration platform for the District. This involved switching the District’s 38,000 employees from Microsoft Office suite to the Web-based Google suite. He also video taped vendor interactions, and instituted a regime of metrics and accountability for government contracts. Such activities convey a belief in transparency and openness that are some of the guiding principles of the Obama administration.
The Whitehouse outlines the Federal CIO position as:
- directing the policy and strategic planning of federal information technology investments
- responsible for oversight of federal technology spending
- establishing and overseeing enterprise architecture to ensure system interoperability and information sharing
- ensuring information security and privacy across the federal government.
Vivek Kundra describes the role as largely focused on:
- the operations of the federal government, looking at the $71 billion and ensuring that we’re spending that money effectively
- driving a transparent and open government agenda to ensure that the public has access to information and access to government. We need to rethink how the federal government interacts with the public in an information economy
- looking at the innovative path in terms of leveraging innovations that are happening whether is it in the private sector or in the NGO community and applying them to the federal government and changing the velocity with which we adopt new technologies.
His position will be closely affiliated with that of the CTO. The role of the CTO – as outlined in Obama’s Technology position paper – is to:
to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices. The CTO will have a specific focus on transparency, by ensuring that each arm of the federal government makes its records open and accessible as the E-Government Act requires. The CTO will also focus on using new technologies to solicit and receive information back from citizens to improve the functioning of democratic government.
Given this, it appears that the CIO and CTO roles will overlap in certain areas – especially given the tenets of Kundraism (see below).
Some of Kundra’s intentions in his new role include extending the use of “cloud computing” in the federal government. Various areas of the government are currently using this platform to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Promoting and evangelizing the benefits of the cloud to reduce the $71 billion federal IT budget will be one of his primary goals.
Reducing costs through increasing the use of Open source software is another of Kundra’s intentions. The new recovery.gov site is an example – it was built on drupal – where freely available software can power government services. Kundra also mentioned Mediawiki which is being used in various agencies from the State Department to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Other open source initiatives like forge.mil have the real potential to vastly expand the use of such software throughout government departments.
The increase in use of Cloud computing and Open source software and just some of Kundra’s intentions. Clay Johnson outlines more with a quick guide to the tenets of Kundraism:
- using alternative market models to reduce cost – examples include the crowdsourcing nature of competitions such as Apps for Democracy and in the UK Show us a better way. These competitions reduce the cost of building early applications and highlights innovative uses of data for the benefit of civic life. The history of fedspending.org and usaspending.gov provides an insight into how advocacy and non-profit groups can innovate, and work with government, to create applications to enrich the public sphere and civic debate.
- data driven decisions – Kundra has used markets to make data driven decisions in relation to IT projects. Projects at the District of Columbia Office of Chief Technology Officer were displayed on flat panel screens with their cost, milestones, the teams associated with them and a score. Clay outlines how: “Scores were associated with names as well as projects, helping Kundra make decisions about how likely a project was to succeed, and find inefficiencies. Each project was given a “buy”, “sell”, or “hold” rating which helped Kundra make decisions on whether or not to continue projects.” The use of prediction markets by companies such as Google and Best Buy allows them to access appropriate information to make the best decisions and accurately predict future events. Their use within government to get better estimates of the actual cost, schedule, or performance on big projects, could vastly improve their success rate.
- operational data is public data – Kundra believes that there should be no difference between the data that government use to make decisions and the data available to the public. In his conference first conference call as Federal CIO he outlined plans for data.gov: “One of the things we want to do is embark on launching data.gov which would democratize data and give data access to the public and based on that challenge whether it is citizens, NGOs the private sector to help us think through how we address some of the toughest problems in the public sector…there is a lot of data that the federal government has and what we need to do is, we need to make sure that all that data that is not private that is not restricted for national security reasons can be made public. And the question we should be thinking about even when it comes to FOIA is how do we begin with the default assumption that we put information out in the public domain then the second question is what needs to be private rather than the other way around.“
There are many benefits associated with the freeing of public data and a potential data.gov. David Stephenson outlines some of these as:
- more informed policy debate, grounded in fact, rather than rhetoric
- greater transparency and less corruption
- optimizing program efficiency and reducing costs:
- new perspectives, especially when “the wisdom of crowds” emerges.
The release of vast amounts of data for public scrutiny and innovation exemplifies Kundra’s intention to use technology to reduce operating costs, make agencies more accountable and engage the public by increasing access to government information.
Create your own future
Kundra will also need to propose solutions to foster the greater use of Web 2.0 concepts internally and externally to enable greater collaboration and transparency within government activities. Along with this the Gov 2.0 midlife crisis must be addressed through the removal of barriers and inefficiencies impeding the governmental embrace of social media. Mark Drapeau quotes Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, as saying:
You have a choice: you can either create your own future, or you can become the victim of a future that someone else creates for you. By seizing the transformation opportunities, you are seizing the opportunity to create your own future.
Vivek Kundra’s previous experiences suggest he’ll be seizing this opportunity to transform federal government IT through the key tenets of Kundraism.