Obama's Federal CIO Pick -- Vivek Kundra -- Signals New Era (Analysis)

Vivek Kundra's appointment as federal CIO will invigorate federal government IT use.

by / March 5, 2009

Paradigm shift.

Never was a rather clichéd phrase more apt than when the Obama administration announced the appointment of Vivek Kundra as the nation's first information chief. Instead of picking someone from within the ranks of the vast federal bureaucracy, the administration has chosen an innovative outsider to be the newly named federal chief information officer.

The fact that the White House saw fit to craft a new position with broad authorities signals a new era begins with how the feds plan to manage their massive IT investments. Yet it's their choice of Kundra that speaks most loudly in terms of change, both within the federal system and, potentially, for public-sector IT overall.

Kundra's appointment resonates in two distinct ways.

First, he fits the Obama administration's Gov 2.0 philosophy of transparency and innovation. Not only has he spoken out for making more government information accessible to the public, but Kundra uses the tools, such as YouTube, wikis, Facebook and Twitter, that make government transparency an actuality rather than a hollow phrase.

Kundra has also received praise for his deft use of cloud computing applications and sophisticated portfolio and project management tools to keep IT projects on track and measure their performance. By using hosted applications, such as Google's suite of online software tools, Kundra has demonstrated his willingness to take risks.

At the same time, he has made it clear that the old way of procuring technology for the public sector is over. His use of consumer-oriented technology, including the iPhone and Web 2.0 tools, reflects the world of IT today: off-the-shelf, sometimes open source and applied in ways that delivers benefits quickly and cost-effectively. It doesn't fit the stodgy image of government IT.

Second, Kundra's appointment opens the door to a new federal-state-local government IT relationship. Former administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget, Karen Evans, worked hard to get federal IT on the same page when it came to standards and performance, but she and the rest of the federal CIO community only paid lip service to intergovernmental IT. This has hurt how the public sector has been able to leverage technology for the public good.

For years, state and local CIOs and their bosses -- governors, county executives and mayors -- have complained bitterly about the federal government's lack of flexibility when came to funding and sharing IT services between the branches of government. As a result, waste and redundancy have become an accepted byproduct of technology investments.

Kundra will have authority to launch new systems and stop existing projects, according to The Post. He will also be in a position to communicate to Congress, federal CIOs and department secretaries about the problems of stovepiped funding and possible solutions, such as shared services and enterprise architecture, based on his experience with the District of Columbia and Virginia. His background in state and local government presents an opportunity to advance ideas on how to apply intergovernmental IT solutions to the problems that now impede how services are delivered to taxpayers.

Kundra's blend of public- and private-sector experience also bodes well. His ability to think outside the box, combined with his understanding of politics are two highly touted skills that a government CIO needs to move IT projects forward in the federal bureaucracy jungle. Finally, Kundra's enthusiasm for technology as a powerful enabler and transformer, not just as plumbing to keep static government programs alive, marks a sea change in attitude regarding the business of government in the 21st century. Dare we say a paradigm shift?


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO


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