Vivek Kundra Touts Transparency, Accountability and Open Government

Federal CIO wants public feedback for improved IT project management.

by / September 1, 2009 0

No one can accuse Vivek Kundra of not hitting the ground running. In the six months since his appointment as federal CIO, Kundra is seemingly everywhere, making the case for radically changing how the federal government uses technology and launching initiatives aimed at nudging his vision closer to reality.

He's been the subject of high-profile coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post and InformationWeek. And Kundra's speaking schedule has been equally hectic, including recent appearances at Wired magazine's Disruptive by Design conference and the National Defense University's Cloud Computing Symposium.

Government Technology spoke with Kundra in mid-July, just days after he unveiled a new online IT dashboard that tracks the status of technology deployments in federal agencies. Kundra predicted the tool - part of a revamped transparency Web site - would hold agencies more accountable for the performance of IT investments. Since then, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has temporarily halted 45 overbudget or behind-schedule IT projects that were identified by the dashboard.

Kundra also talked about how he intends to make it easier for federal agencies to adopt cloud-computing applications - and how the cloud-computing model could invite better collaboration among federal, state and local governments. Here's what he had to say:

What's your top priority at this moment?
From an IT perspective, one of the key areas we're focused on is leveraging the power of technology to fundamentally change the way agencies operate. Part of that involves making sure the $76 billion the U.S. government spends is managed properly and that we make the tough choices in terms of divesting from programs and projects that don't perform and investing in ones that perform and yield the dividends they promised in the very beginning.


Video: Federal CIO Vivek Kundra explains why his move to cloud computing is good for state and local governments.

How will you do that?
When you look at an organization like the U.S. government that has more than 10,000 systems, a key focus has to be about ensuring we lay a new foundation built on the principles of transparency, accountability and open government. So with that, what we've done is launched the IT dashboard as part of Then-Sen. Obama actually introduced the bill [the Obama-Coburn 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act] around transparency of the federal budget. The dashboard itself actually moves us away from the era of faceless accountability to where we know who is responsible for the IT projects, how they are performing, whether they are over budget or behind schedule. All of that data is made publically available. So we can hold agencies accountable for how those projects perform.

What do you believe the impact of doing that will be?
We're already seeing a huge impact. The moment we went live, we saw massive change in terms of agencies. CIOs and project managers across the board were giving us better and cleaner data at a more regular interval. We went from getting data from an annual to quarterly basis, and now we get it on a monthly basis and are moving toward real time. Second, we are already seeing agencies, such as Veterans Affairs, which is shortly going to announce the number of IT projects that they're looking at and are making sure these projects are being temporarily put on hold that don't produce the dividends. Agencies across the board are examining their entire portfolio line by line, making sure they are properly managed. And if they are behind schedule or over budget, they are getting to the root cause

and turning around the poorly performing projects.

The dashboard includes a public feedback feature. Is that being used yet?
We recognize that the federal government does not have a monopoly in the best ideas. We've already seen more than 20 million hits on the Web site. We've gotten feedback from the public, frontline workers, the GAO [U.S. Government Accountability Office] and Congress in terms of specific projects at a macro level and suggestions on how we can take the platform to the next level. So there's active engagement. And we recognize that making sure everybody in the country - all 300 million Americans - have the opportunity to comment, to give us feedback will allow us to run a more efficient, effective government.

Right now the dashboard is specifically for federal IT projects. Do you anticipate that states and localities eventually will participate in any way?
We've been working very closely with state and local governments, specifically with NASCIO [National Association of State Chief Information Officers], on a number of issues. IT governance is one area where we are talking about what we can do to take this to the next level. We're already working on our transparency with raw data through We're challenging and working with states and locals to make sure they get as much data online as possible, similar to what we're doing in the federal government with

So that approach could spread?
Absolutely. It could reflect every aspect of government operations, not just technology projects, but also health care, energy and education. Once that data is made available to the public, you can do interesting mashups, create applications and innovate in spaces where innovation is needed at a time when the only way we can lead is through innovation in a global economy.

NASCIO contends that federal funding rules for state-administered programs often encourage stand-alone IT systems and discourage enterprise architecture efforts. Do those rules need to be revised?
That's an issue we are actively looking at right now. From my experience with Virginia [as assistant secretary of commerce and trade] and also the District of Columbia [as chief technology officer], that's an issue we dealt with, and we're working with NASCIO to figure out what will be the best path forward.

Can you give any specifics?
It's too early to say right now.

What do you see as the toughest issue for moving the federal government toward a cloud-computing model?
The key is simplifying how we provide services. For far too long, we've led with essentially memos, and what we need to start doing is lead with making sure we have solutions. How do we provide agencies with solutions that create value so they move toward the cloud platform? A big challenge, of course, is around security. How do you ensure solutions are FISMA [Federal Information Security Management Act]-compliant? How do you make sure that the rules and regulations that govern privacy are addressed? How do you make sure as you move toward data, the ownership of data and the data-element level from agency to agency is different?

So there are a number of challenges that we were looking at. We met with private- sector companies, NGOs [nongovernment organizations], some of the brightest scientific minds, and they're helping us look at where we're headed when it comes to cloud computing. We're also working very closely with NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology]. I believe a key area when it comes to cloud computing is to begin with looking at consumer technologies. In our personal lives, if we wanted to go online and share photos or sign up for e-mail or start a Web site ... those transactions literally take minutes.

What we're trying to do on the cloud computing platform is to make sure that we could simplify and abstract the complexities for agencies so they can go online, and literally, in the same way that you and I in our personal lives can access those services. How can we make sure we have infrastructure that is FISMA certified, prebake that into the architecture, so they're essentially provisioning the services on demand?

As the federal government moves toward cloud applications and data, how does that change the technology relationships between federal, state and local governments?
I think it creates a huge opportunity for federal, state and local government because for far too long we've been thinking very much vertically and making sure things are separated. Now we have an opportunity to lead with solutions that by nature encourage collaboration horizontally and vertically. But I also want to underscore the fact that it's important to make sure the privacy of the American people and the security of these systems are addressed. For that reason, we are approaching it from two different angles. One is information that may be public in nature, that's not classified or sensitive, that could sit in consumer applications, and two, information that may be classified in nature that would have to be in infrastructure that is government owned and operated.