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

Brian Heaton  | 

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