August 18, 2011 By Brian Heaton
“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.
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.”
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.”
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