By annie shum | December 21, 2009
By J. Nicholas Hoover, InformationWeek, December 19, 2009 (From the December 21, 2009 issue)
On the wall of Vivek Kundra’s Washington, D.C., office hangs a poster-sized IT diagram with such fine-grained detail that it strains the eye to study it. The diagram, showing the computing infrastructure of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was created to expose data that could be made publicly available as part of President Obama’s government “transparency” initiative. Kundra, appointed the nation’s first federal CIO in March, has learned that it’s not enough to mandate data disclosure; he must get involved. “I’m not just going to operate at the 100,000-foot level,” says the 35-year-old, Indian-born Kundra. “I’m going to get at the atomic level, get into the enterprise architecture, study your information models, and figure out how we achieve those objectives.”
The job of opening the government’s databases to the public–complicated by the need to ensure security, privacy, confidentiality, and data quality–is huge, and Kundra will be the first to admit that most of the work lies ahead. In fact, that’s true for everything on his plate: reducing the number of federal data centers, transitioning government agencies to cloud services, bolstering cybersecurity, improving IT project performance, and engaging the public over the Web.
With such a long, unfinished to-do list, you might say that we’re premature in naming Kundra InformationWeek’s Chief of the Year. But that’s where we landed, and here’s why: The federal CIO, now nine months into the job, has demonstrated a compelling vision for overhauling the government’s lumbering IT operations (with 71,000 federal IT workers and more than 10,000 IT systems), and his progress is so far impressive.
Kundra, for example, has put the feds out in front of many private sector companies in the move to cloud computing. The Data.gov site has grown from just 47 data sets when introduced in May to more than 115,000 today. And the recently launched federal IT Dashboard–a display of IT project status that corporations would do well to mimic–has not only given the public visibility into the performance of Uncle Sam’s big-ticket IT projects, but put agency CIOs on notice that execution matters.“It’s a forcing model to say, ‘So, how are you managing your projects?'” says Kundra from his office on the Old Executive Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, a stone’s throw from the White House.
Despite its $76 billion IT budget, the federal government trails the private sector in many areas of technology implementation. “We have a lot of great ideas and thousands of studies” on IT strategy, Kundra says, but ultimately, “there’s been failed execution.” The U.S. government has a long line of IT flops, from the FBI’s defunct $170 million virtual case file system to problems that will force the Census Bureau to forgo the use of mobile devices and spend $800 million more than expected on the 2010 census. Thirty-year-old Cobol programs still chug away in government data centers, while siloed IT systems are as much a result of organizational rigidity as technical limitations.
Kundra knows the feds can do better. He sees the vast array of technologies that are available to consumers and businesses and thinks: Why can’t we have that, too? One way, he says, is to introduce the same kind of “Darwinian pressures” in public sector technologies that drive innovation and productivity in the private sector.
He’ll have to cut through a thick bureaucracy to succeed. Dozens of government agency CIOs report to him, but only indirectly. Kundra has a hand in IT policy setting, but there are limits to what he can require of agencies. And while Kundra has a voice in IT budget decisions, so do agency CIOs and their bosses, Congress, and other officials in the Office of Management and Budget, where Kundra works. “Vivek is leading through persuasion and the policy tools within OMB,” says federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, who works closely with Kundra, though in a more industry-facing role.
As director of the federal CIO Council, Kundra meets regularly with the CIOs of federal agencies and departments. “We’re working very closely on the budget side–very, very tightly integrated–with the agency CIOs and internally within the budget side of OMB,” in an effort to tie IT spending to administration and OMB policy, he says.
Jeffrey Zients, the nation’s chief performance officer, says Kundra brings a mix of skills that make him well suited for this job. “Across 20 years in the private sector, I’ve worked with dozens of CIOs,” says Zients, who was a management consultant before joining the Obama administration. “Some are strong operators, and others are good strategists. Often times those two things are not correlated, and they’re often inversely correlated. Vivek is in a league of his own, because he’s both.”
Kundra got off to a rocky start. One week after his appointment as federal CIO on March 5, the FBI raided the office of the CTO in Washington, D.C., where Kundra formerly worked, and arrested two workers on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery. Kundra took a leave of absence, but was back on the job within days, informed that he wasn’t a target of the investigation.
With that episode behind him, Kundra quickly got to work. His official responsibilities: directing policy and strategic planning for federal IT; overseeing federal IT spending, enterprise architecture, system interoperability, and information sharing; and ensuring IT security and privacy across the government. In the process, Kundra is charged with using technology, in the words of Obama, to “improve performance and lower the cost of government operations.”
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.
Data.gov, 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, Data.gov 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 Data.gov 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.
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 Data.gov 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 Data.gov, 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.”
Clouds On The Horizon
Cloud computing is one way Kundra intends to do that. He sees the cloud as a way to lower costs and move government IT’s focus from managing infrastructure to more strategic projects. As the CTO of Washington, D.C., he gave all city employees access to Google Apps, a move that other government agencies have since followed. In September, the feds launched a cloud portal called Apps.gov, where agencies can subscribe to software as a service, infrastructure as a service, and other cloud services. Kundra is steering agencies toward cloud services as an alternative to investing in hardware. That’s in keeping with guidance to the fiscal 2010 budget that “requires a fundamental re-examination of investments in technology infrastructure.”
Apps.gov includes business intelligence, collaboration, CRM, engineering, medical, and other applications from vendors such as Google and Microsoft, as well as government specialists such as Carahsoft Technology. Kundra has talked directly to Amazon about participating in Apps.gov, and he envisions creating an open source repository on the site. “Why not share applications that serve public interests with states and local government?” he says. “Agencies across the board could take that code and create their own derivatives, and very much like the open source movement, better it over time.”
At the same time, Kundra wants to rein in the government’s poorly coordinated buildout of data centers. Over the past 10 years, the number of federal data centers has grown from 498 to more than 1,200. “What we need to do is look at the root cause of the proliferation–part of it is that we haven’t really led with delivery of services or platforms,” he says, gesturing to a second chart on his wall, titled “From Lines Of Business To Platforms.” “So the idea is to create government-wide platforms, whether they’re on data or travel or collaboration.”
OMB and the General Services Administration are working together to create shared-services platforms for use across the government. Capital investment will be required to get things going, Kundra says, but he expects long-term savings to come from operational efficiencies and improved services. The government, of course, is a prodigious IT outsourcer. Kundra estimates that 70% of the government’s IT infrastructure is managed by partners, some of that under multibillion-dollar contracts. Here, too, he wants to downsize. Says Kundra, “We need to make sure that the government is doing a good job in defining its requirements up front, but also being very, very specific in what it is we want to contract for and doing it in smaller chunks, so you can have models that come together architecturally, and you can hold people accountable for delivering on specific projects.”
As he pushes for change in how federal IT is procured and managed, one thing working in Kundra’s favor is that he has support from the top. Obama, the first U.S. president to use a BlackBerry, has repeatedly championed the importance of technology. Kundra’s boss, OMB director Peter Orzag, was one of the government’s first bloggers in his former job as head of the Congressional Budget Office. “He’s integral to our efforts to bridge the technology gap between the private sector and government,” Orzag says of Kundra.
In his first nine months on the job, Kundra has had a bit of a grace period to get his strategy in place, but the expectations are about to increase. “The year was very much a year of ideas. I hope that 2010 will be a year of execution,” says Clay Johnston, director of Sunlight Labs for the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit think tank pursuing open government initiatives. “He’s built this infrastructure with the IT Dashboard and Data.gov. Now he needs to make them good and have solid execution.”
Kundra is well aware that vision without execution is an all-too-familiar story in government technology. “It comes down to making sure we’re buying technology faster, smarter, and at a lower cost and that the experience the American people have when they interact with their government is fundamentally different,” he says.
On that count, every U.S. citizen will have a sense of Kundra’s effectiveness as federal CIO–and have a say in whether he passes muster.