March 5, 2009 By Blake Harris
Vivek Kundra, chief technology officer of the District of Columbia, drew national attention for his innovative style and his drive to use technology to greatly increase government transparency and citizen involvement. A few weeks ago, he spoke with Digital Communities editor Blake Harris about his management approach, IT governance innovations, cost-cutting measures and the pace of innovation. On March 5, President Barack Obama named Kundra the federal CIO -- a new position that will oversee technology investments and technology spending by the federal government.
Q: What are some of the new approaches you've introduced in Washington, D.C.?
A: I usually point to three areas in terms of what we are doing here. It starts with a shift in philosophical thinking, but there are three pillars. First, there is the question of how you lower the cost of government operations by moving toward consumer technologies rather than technologies focused within the enterprise. What I mean by that is, for too long the public sector has thought for some reason that it's so special that it must have custom applications, it must have radios for the public safety unit that cost $6,000 a piece, it must have applications targeted for the enterprise. And the government chooses to pay for things that it can get for free.
Second, there is the question of how you drive radical transparency in the public sector. We are doing that by democratizing data and opening up the warehouse of government information to the public so people can innovate; they can slice, dice and cube that data to create amazing and creative applications for citizens and government.
And the third big pillar has to do with how you fundamentally rethink IT governance. What I'm doing with IT governance essentially is simplifying it, getting away from complicated methodologies, and getting more focused on process rather than outcome. Here we've moved to a simple "stock market" model where every technology project is treated as a publicly traded stock.
Q: Your last point brings up how you've approached running IT projects -- which is quite different.
A: When I came to the district, it had spent more than$1 billion in IT. Yet it was very difficult to say which IT projects resulted in benefits and what those quantified benefits were. Or what the project failures were and what caused those failures. There wasn't any real way to do this type of analysis. And frankly, we did not get a billion dollars worth of technology. These followed old approaches in government and people would not get fired if they were incompetent or they didn't perform. We were also relying too much on consultants to drive the government agenda. So what I said was, if on my iPhone as I'm walking down the street I can check the price of any publicly traded stock, and at the same time, get all the news coverage around that stock, why can't I do that with public-sector spending?
I decided to get rid of my traditional project-management team and I hired five people. The reason I hired five was that I had five major clusters of government operations: public safety, education, health care, economic development and government operations. I began treating each IT project like a stock. I literally built this stock market floor, and with each project we look at the "happiness index." This indicates how happy the customers are how happy the people who implement the project are, and how happy the stakeholders are. We micro-poll to get the happiness index. We see how they are doing in terms of schedule [and] then of course, evaluate the management team. When that's put together as "stock," we categorize them into buy, sell or hold.
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