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Kundra’s 4 Principles as Federal CIO

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Vivek Kundra delivered the keynote speech at FOSE on Thursday, outlining his four principles for how government operations much change to meet the challenges facing the US today. Unfortunately, the content of the speech has been overshadowed by his suspension following an FBI raid on the technology offices of the District of Columbia. Vivek Kundra – the former CTO for the District – however,  is not thought to be the subject of the investigation.

In his first speech outlining his technology agenda he described four core principles which will define his ambitions as federal CIO.

Word cloud of Vivek Kundra’s keynote [credit: wordle.net]

1. Making Transparency and Open Government a reality

One of President Obama’s first acts was to sign a memo on the principles that government should be open, transparent, participatory and collaborative. Kundra’s agenda embraces this principle of government as a central pillar to:

…allow people to participate in the public civic process, to look at where their money is going, how it’s spent and to hold the government officials accountable.

Aligning the principle of transparency requires a shift in mindset from a default assumption of data as being private and in the control of government officials, to a recognition that data should be public.

We’re going to be publishing government data and beginning with a default assumption that information should be [available] to the people, not with the default assumption that information should not be in the public domain. If you look at what happened when data has been democratized, when data has been put in the public domain, you’ve had an explosion of innovation.

Examples of this explosion in innovation were identified as the Human Genome Project, and what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency did in terms of creation and innovation around the Internet.


2. Engaging citizens

Kundra identified what the new media team is doing at whitehouse.gov as a sign of the government opening up and allowing people to engage in terms of public debate. This openness on the part of government includes the publishing of all non-emergency legislation online, five days before the President signs it. This legislation can be reviewed and commented on by the public, before it is signed into law.

We’re going to be rolling out an ambitious agenda on how you can engage in the operations of government on a day-to-day basis, whether that’s rule-making or whether that has to do with health and human services, across the board.

This engagement and participation with the public was a key principle throughout the Obama election campaign. Indeed, during the transition change.gov had an Open for Questions feature, which allowed the public to ask for, and vote up questions for the administration-to-be. Through allowing anyone to submit questions, and then allowing others to vote on these questions, the transition team experimented with using the public to prioritize questions and comments. Kundra seems to suggest that this kind of platform could be rolled out throughout various agencies, to try to increase public engagement with government institutions.

3. Lowering the cost of government operations

Kundra wants to use technology more effectively by doing “a better job managing its more than 4 million employees and more than 10,000 IT systems”. In particular, he wants to change how investments are rationalized by focusing more on the outcomes and less on processes.

The time it takes for government to procure IT is an issue also raised by Chris Anderson in his FOSE keynote. The often protracted procurement processes that government organisations have to follow, means they are not as nimble as they could be in their procurement of IT.

if it takes two to three years to go through a procurement…and as processor speeds and technology innovate much faster, by the time the [deal] is made, we’ve bought something that makes no sense. We need to…rethink how technology specifically is procured in the federal government.

Kundra’s believes the difference between consumer technology and government IT, both in its cost and effectiveness, is an area which needs to be looked at if the government wants to reduce its $71 billion annual IT budget.

We’re asking a very, very simple question, which is: In your personal life, as a consumer, if you can go out there and buy technology for 1/10th the cost of what the federal government pays, why is that? What makes the government so special that it can’t embrace some of these consumer technologies? What makes this government process so different that there’s no way the government can take advantage of the Darwinian pressures in the consumer space to fundamentally innovate and to lower the cost of technologies?

The short-list of options to reduce this spending include:

  • greater adoption of cloud computing services – already created a body within the CIO Council to explore how the federal government can move forward more aggressively in that direction.
  • use of free and opensource technologies  – these can help cut costs, time to value/implementation and enable government IT to provide services more effectively and efficiently. The question Kundra posed is: “Why should the federal government continue to build infrastructure when it’s available for free in some cases?”


4. Finding the innovative path

Throughout the speech there was an emphasis on innovation, and recognizing that the government can be thought of as a leader in this area:

Everywhere I look, people talk about how the private sector is ahead of the federal government and that the federal government can’t lead. I reject that idea.

…we can be leaders, thought leaders when it comes to innovation – especially in these tough economic times and especially when we’re looking at two wars, a tough economy and innovation in terms of fundamental operations of government lagging.

The innovations that should be looked at need to focus on citizens, and be targeted towards providing services more efficiently. Technology should be thought of as an enabler, and a conduit towards the provision of services, rather than as a necessity in itself.

A simple example is an explosion in Web 2.0 technologies. We need to re-engineer on the back end – not the technologies but the staff and the teams within agencies to make sure that they’re better positioned to take advantage of some of these technologies and drive hard in that direction.

Enabling Web 2.0 technology in government requires a change in mindset for many within government. These technologies focus on letting go of control, and being more collaborative and transparent in how government operations are conducted. Government must be more willing to take risks in order to innovate and become more efficient:

They’ve been taught that the best way to survive is not to take any risks, and they haven’t been liberated in terms of testing out their ideas and making sure that they embrace innovation on a day-to-day basis.

Helping government overcome this cultural inertia, and become a more innovative and risk taking organization is one of Vivek Kundra’s key ambitions during his tenure as government CIO. He needs to get back to work, as soon as possible in order to ensure these principles are propagated, and implemented, throughout government.

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