Federal CIO Appointment Marks New Era for Government IT Executives (Opinion)

Vivek Kundra's appointment to CIO post raises stature of Government IT at a critical juncture.

by / May 1, 2009

With the economy in the tank and corporate profits turning to dust, interest in private-sector IT and the CIOs who run technology has slackened considerably. Instead, more attention has focused on the role of government IT, thanks in large part to the appointment of Vivek Kundra -- formerly chief technology officer of the District of Columbia -- as the nation's first federal CIO.

Overnight, it seems, major daily newspapers, national business magazines and technology trade press have taken a shine to Kundra's emerging role as they speculate on the impact he'll have and the challenges he'll face. For those of us who cover this part of the IT world, it's gratifying to finally see some attention paid to this crucial yet long overlooked position in government.

But it's more than that. Government IT is receiving attention at a critical juncture in the U.S. The public sector's role has been thrust to the forefront as the nation turns to the (often-reviled) bureaucrat to save it from further calamity. Kundra's appointment presents an opportunity for him to put into play, on a national level, some of his most cherished visions for public-sector technology. These include more transparency through the expanded use of Web 2.0 tools, such as YouTube, wikis, Facebook and Twitter. "Transparency allows people to participate in the public civic process, to look at where their money is going, how it's being spent and to hold the government officials accountable," said Kundra in March during a speech at the annual FOSE trade show in Washington, D.C.

Kundra also wants to unleash the government innovators who have been stymied by fears of taking risks. In particular, he wants to see more cloud computing -- a concept he championed while working at the district. Kundra has also advocated for more commercial and consumer products in the government IT space as part of his plan to lower the cost of government operations. And he wants to streamline the procurement process so that today's technology can be purchased today, not tomorrow.

This is an ambitious agenda. The problem he faces is a vast federal bureaucracy that's used to operating independently. However, Kundra will have some control over departmental IT budgets. He reports to the White House and he'll head the Federal CIO Council, so he may have a few tools to change the status quo. The other issue is how to balance privacy and security on top of his transparency agenda. Look at what happened to President Barack Obama's BlackBerry, a small but symbolic example of how security trumps openness in Washington.

The federal CIO also faces questions about his oversight capabilities. On March 12, an employee from the district's Office of the Chief Technology Officer was arrested by the FBI on bribery charges. The following day, Kundra was put on leave but then quietly reinstated on March 17. It remains to be seen what impact, if any, this event will have on his new career.

But it's important to view Kundra's appointment beyond its impact on the federal government. His experience in both state and local government IT could help establish a better dialog between federal, state and local CIOs. For years, state and local IT executives and their bosses -- governors, county executives and mayors -- have complained about the federal government's lack of flexibility when it comes to funding and sharing IT services between branches of government. Kundra understands that dilemma and could help bring about progress on this extremely important issue.

Last but not least, the attention given to the new federal CIO has put a spotlight on a government position that needs elevation. As Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, put it, government "CIOs should be up on the bridge, not down in the engine room." For too long, the typical government CIO was an IT guy, uncomfortable talking about business. Now more and more are like Kundra, who has a blend of public- and private-sector experience and insists on having direct access to his CEO up on the bridge.

Obama couldn't have made a better choice when he made Kundra his first federal CIO. Kundra thinks outside the box and understands politics -- two highly touted skills a government CIO needs to move IT projects forward in the federal bureaucracy jungle. Kundra's enthusiasm for technology as a powerful enabler and transformer marks a sea change in attitude regarding the business of government in the 21st century.

The public CIO has come of age.


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO