Will Federal IT Change With New Leadership?

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel is facing big expectations as he carries the torch for his predecessor Vivek Kundra.

by / August 18, 2011 0
Former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra David Kidd

When Vivek Kundra was selected as the first federal CIO by President Barack Obama in March 2009, the appointment came with some tricky marching orders. In addition to managing the government’s IT operations, Kundra had to find a way to incorporate the latest tech advancements into federal agency IT implementations — and do so in the most cost-efficient manner.

His efforts were largely successful. Kundra, who stepped down in August for a fellowship at Harvard University, is credited by the Obama administration with saving taxpayers more than $3 billion by scrutinizing IT spending and identifying underperforming projects.

But outside the Beltway, Kundra’s legacy is less about money and more about his pointed efforts to communicate with state and local government officials while giving their IT issues a voice at the federal level.

Sean Vinck, CIO of Illinois, called Kundra the “Suze Orman of government information technology” for his ability to empower people to manage their IT affairs. Vinck added that Kundra’s experience as CTO of Washington, D.C., was invaluable, as the perspective allowed him to understand what federal practices would harm state and local IT efforts.
 
“He knew that if the federal government was not disciplined on how it articulated and communicated new regulations and programs to state governments, they could produce confusion, inefficiency and increased costs,” Vinck said.

And prior to Kundra’s arrival, Nebraska CIO Brenda Decker said that she and many of her colleagues felt that states were often an afterthought in federal policymaking — even when those decisions directly impacted states. But Kundra made great strides to overcome that.

“A lot of times I think we are brought in at the end of the game, where a lot of the decisions have been made, and a project is developed by the federal government and then handed to us, and we’re supposed deploy it now and find the right solution to meet a federal mandate,” Decker said. “Vivek has been very instrumental in saying, ‘Let’s see what the states think of this,’ [and asking] ... ‘Is this something your state can manage?’ ... rather than saying, ‘Here it is, just go do it.’”

Stanley “Bill” Rogers, CIO of New Hampshire, said that while he’s only been on the job in the Granite State for four or five months, as someone who has worked in large global corporations, he thought that Kundra’s work was top-notch.

“He brought on board some innovative ideas, and it was like trying to turn a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean,” Rogers said. “What Vivek did is what a successful CIO needs to do — bring people together, align goals and be a resource.”

A Game Changer

During Kundra’s more than two years as federal CIO, myriad federal IT advancements were made. His 25 Point Plan to Reform Federal IT Management laid down a strategy to harness new technology in a fiscally sensible but flexible manner.

To increase government transparency, Data.gov, a dashboard to track the status of federal IT projects, was created, as was a “cloud first” policy, which requires federal agencies to look at cloud technology before buying new computer systems.

In addition, Kundra instituted TechStat Accountability Sessions, during which he met with agency leaders to discuss IT projects that were behind schedule or inefficient, and sought to improve them. The Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, a plan to significantly reduce the U.S. government’s 2,000-plus data centers, is also ongoing, with 195 scheduled to shut down by the end of the year.

In a June blog entry on Cio.gov, Richard Spires, CIO of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and vice chairman of the Federal CIO Council, called Kundra a “strong force for open government” and credited him with changing the dialog and viewpoint of federal government agencies.
 
Kundra’s efforts are highly regarded in the private sector as well. Jay Kalath, vice president and CTO of ARRAY Information Technology, an IT management and consulting firm, said Kundra put in a framework at the federal level that hits many of the areas the technology industry has been discussing for quite awhile.

Kalath was particularly enamored with Kundra’s 25 Point Plan, and added that the cloud-first and shared solutions approach has made federal IT implementations much more modular. “One thing he’s really done is push the adoption of change a lot more,” Kalath said. “His role was a new one as the federal CIO; the expectations weren’t really defined, so he could walk in and be that change agent. He put that vision and framework in place.”

Calvin Rhodes, CIO of Georgia, believed the push for open data will be the most vivid memory of Kundra’s time as federal CIO. “It’ll be years before you’ll see the many benefits of people using all that data,” he said. “That’ll be his lasting legacy — to have the vision to make that data available to citizens, the private sector and government entities.”

Decker added that Kundra’s push toward open government and cloud technology, and how it trickled down to the state level, made her feel more comfortable with pursuing outside-of-the-box ideas.

“You always had this feeling previously that nobody was really using this stuff and, ‘Am I out here on the bleeding edge of something?’” Decker said. “And I think that is something [Kundra] really did that’s going to be a legacy of his for a long time. We’ll have the opportunity to explore those things without people second-guessing whether we’re ‘losing it’ or not.”

What’s Next

Steven L. VanRoekel was appointed by Obama as Kundra’s successor on Aug. 4 and jumped in the fire immediately, starting the next day.

Former managing director of the FCC, VanRoekel’s last post was as executive director of citizen and organization engagement at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides economic and humanitarian aid to people worldwide. He also spent 15 years as a Microsoft executive.

But VanRoekel’s lack of CIO experience may be an issue in regard to success, said Andrea DiMaio, lead government IT analyst at Gartner, an IT and research advisory company. DiMaio quickly pointed out, however, that Kundra also had limited work as CTO of Washington, D.C., and no federal background before taking the federal CIO job.

“[Kundra] was able to both drive innovation and gain credibility among CIOs, some of whom were certainly skeptical about his appointment,” he said. “Keeping an outsider view, being able to challenge the common wisdom and using the same prove-me-wrong approach that Vivek used through most of his tenure is something that Steve should pursue.”

Prior to VanRoekel being named federal CIO, state CIOs had plenty to say about what challenges and expectations await the nation’s new IT leader.

Rogers said the federal budget crunch will make it difficult for federal agencies to invest in new technologies while maintaining their current operations. He emphasized that the next federal CIO will be knee-deep in standardization, data center consolidation and the move to cloud computing — while also contending with funding challenges.

“You have to spend some money in the beginning to get projects implemented,” Rogers said.
Kalath agreed. He said Kundra’s cloud-first policy and the entirety of the shared services IT model he was trying to establish are going to be judged over the next 12-18 months, and money will be needed to see them through.

“The budget is going to be a concern,” Kalath said. “Not directly because we are trying to do reductions to programs, but there will be costs in adapting to this model and the transition.”
Vinck wasn’t so sure. He acknowledged that resources will always be a challenge, but said Kundra’s message was that the federal government spends too much on technology, not too little. “Kundra’s whole tenure was about, ‘We’re spending a hell of a lot of money and we’re not getting where we need to get,’” Vinck said, adding that solving IT challenges is more a function of management strategy and flexibility.

Vinck said health-care reform should be a priority for the new federal CIO. He called the timelines and objectives of the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010 — which involves the states establishing health benefit exchanges by 2014 — “ambitious.” His concern is that some states won’t be able to meet the deadlines without clear federal guidance.

“Unless the federal government has a game plan that is concise and realistic ... we will not meet those time frames,” Vinck said. “It is absolutely critical that [Kundra’s] successor understand that and realize his mission is to shepherd those agencies and make it so that federal agencies are speaking with a unified voice.”

Decker said the need for clarity goes beyond health care. She said vague or confusing federal initiatives were a regular occurrence in the course of IT business between the states and Uncle Sam. “That’s one of the things we tried to work with Vivek on, and I think he was making some headway, but not as much and as quickly as everyone wished he had.”

Decker also expects work on some of Kundra’s initiatives to slow down while his replacement gets situated. “I think there will be some things that will stumble and stall for a period of time, if for no other reason than people aren’t going to operate for fear of what will happen next and what the next person will do,” Decker explained.

Kalath said one of the most important things Kundra’s successor must tackle is assisting federal agencies in adapting to a cloud-first way of IT implementation. Larger agencies might have an easier time due to their resources, but mid-size and smaller agencies will need help.

“You brought in someone like Kundra who was an IT/tech agent who had a fresh perspective ... who opened up the hood and made a fair assessment of [government IT] without focusing on one agency or another,” Kalath said. “Now some of the things that are going to be hard are that no two agencies are alike. It really depends on looking at those agencies and putting fair expectations on [them] in terms of how to adopt [the cloud]. I think the requirements are there, but it is going to be a challenge.”

Filling the Shoes

Decker, Kalath, Rhodes, Rogers and Vinck agreed that while a broad range of experience is a key factor in a federal CIO, the biggest need is for someone who excels at being a communicator.

Kalath stressed the need for the next federal CIO to ride the wave of change that Kundra started in the government IT community, which starts with communication and establishing expectations. “You need someone who understands the federal arena, but at the same time, needs to be a change agent,” Kalath said.

Decker agreed and said she felt the most important credential would be the ability to appreciate the IT needs and concerns of all levels of government.

“It was very fortuitous for us that it was someone who came from the local level and knew what we dealt with as states,” Decker said of Kundra’s appointment in 2009. “But I don’t want to close my eyes to the fact that there are talented people out there [with only a] federal background. I think with the right set of skills, a person could succeed without having that hands-on [local] experience.”

Vinck said that first and foremost, the next federal CIO must be a diplomat who is skilled enough in the private sector to bring forth advancements, but sensitive to how and why the public sector and its challenges are different.

“I think it’s likelier that someone can build on the successes Kundra had if they have some relevant public-sector experience,” Vinck said. “Having said that, I’m a person who believes the best answers can come from surprising sources. But my point would be that the idiosyncrasies of the public sector are not self-evident ... to people whose backgrounds are primarily in the private sector. So there would be a learning curve.”

With VanRoekel now on the job, DiMaio agreed with state CIOs that many of the same challenges Kundra dealt with still exist, particularly when it comes to executing ideas.

DiMaio said pursuing greater centralization or trying to exercise more control over how federal agencies spend IT dollars might be a tough sell before the 2012 presidential election. Instead of reinventing the wheel, he suggested that VanRoekel might be best served by simply continuing the work Kundra started.

“Reinforcing most of Vivek’s [25 Point Plan] from the point of view of increasing rather than reducing choice would be a good start,” DiMaio said. “In the last few months, Vivek had moved in this direction, looking at how agencies may benefit themselves from his TechStat efforts, or suggesting that cloud adoption is a choice, rather than an obligation.”

VanRoekel, in a conference call with reporters on Aug. 4, said he planned to do just that. The new federal CIO made a point of saying there won’t be much difference between the way Kundra handled the job and the way he envisions doing it.

“I consider a very large percentage of my job is carrying that torch forward on the great work that has been done,” VanRoekel said. “A lot of that great work is attributed to the team that is still here, and so I am going to keep working with that.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.