Transcript of Vivek Kundra's 2009 FOSE address

MODERATOR: We're very pleased this morning to have Vivek Kundra, the chief information officer at the White House, speaking to us in one of his first major speeches since his appointment.

As you probably know, he was born in New Delhi. He immigrated to Tanzania, where he stayed until he was 11, at which point he moved to the U.S.

He is completing a trifecta of government service: A couple of minutes ago, he just corrected me because it turns out his first job in government was at Arlington County [Va.] where he was director of infrastructure. He was being interviewed in Arlington County on Sept. 11, [2001], when the [terrorist] attacks took place. They hired him on the spot, and that's how he began his government service.

He also worked at the state level in Virginia as assistant secretary of both commerce and technology. Pretty unusual to have one person do both of those jobs. At the local level, he has most recently been the [chief technology officer] of the District of Columbia, and now at the federal level, he's the CIO [for the federal government].

Of the many accomplishments he has to his credit, one of the most interesting is that he manages [information technology] projects like a stock portfolio. You put more money into the ones that are performing well, and you sell or close down the ones that are not performing. This has worked very well in the district, and as we all know, it may be a little bit of a challenge in the federal space to close down projects. When was the last time a big project got closed?

We're looking forward to following his progress.

He also was recently named one of the top 25 CIOs by InfoWorld magazine, and last but certainly not least, he has been named one of Federal Computer Week's Federal 100 and will be honored at our banquet on March 25. Please join me in welcoming Vivek Kundra.

KUNDRA: It's great to be here at FOSE and especially looking at the evolution of FOSE itself in the last 25-plus years.

First of all, I'm very honored and humbled to be appointed by the president to serve as the chief information officer, and as far as the agenda is concerned, in the public sector, there are a couple of things I want to do in terms of embarking on a technology revolution in the U.S. government.

Before I jump into the agenda, what I would like to talk about a little bit is the evolution of technology at a macro level. If we think about what's happened in the last three revolutions - if you look at the agricultural revolution, the Industrial Revolution and now the information revolution - two fundamental principles hold true. One is the liquidity in the market when it comes to the flow of information and the velocity at which that information travels. Consider this: In the agricultural revolution, you literally could be born in one space, in one area, and within a 25-mile radius, you could spend your entire lifetime. All the means of production and distribution when it came to commerce were limited to within that 25-mile radius.

Society advanced, [and] you were able to migrate farther and conduct commerce and integrate in terms of various relationships when it came to economics or when it came to transportation and the flow of not just goods but people.

The Industrial Revolution then brought about another era, which was the movement of goods, supplies [and] people, and [it] fundamentally changed the way the economy worked. Essentially, you were able to move at a much faster pace, whether that was through ships, trains or planes, and the world became a little smaller. And the limit when it came to time and distance - we're beginning to cut that, not in half, in terms of 50 percent, but we're looking at 90th percentile efficiencies.

Today, as we enter the information economy, if you look at any modern economy, it's the digital infrastructure that we so rely on today - whether that's transportation, whether that's health, whether that's looking at what's going on in terms of the flow of ideas. And if you look at the European Union, one of the things that the EU accomplished was the free movement of labor and the free movement of currency.

Now, as we look at information technology, especially when it comes to the federal government, we have to ask ourselves [about] a couple of assumptions and the self-image of the federal government that it isn't at the forefront. Everywhere I look, people talk about how the private sector is ahead of the federal government and that the federal government can't lead. I reject that idea. The federal government can and has led. If you look at what [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] did in terms of creation and innovation around the Internet and the National Science Foundation spinning it out - that [effort] was led within the federal government.

If you look at what happened when it came to the Human Genome Project and how the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with other [organizations], fundamentally changed the way personalized medicine was going to look and curing some of the diseases that haven't been cured and setting us on a completely different trajectory moving forward - that also came out of the federal government.

I could go on and on about the role of the federal government - whether that has to do with space exploration, whether that has to do with medicine or fundamentally changing communications. From a technology perspective, I think we need to embrace a different self-image of the federal government. An image that accepts and recognizes that it's not going to be easy [to drive] fundamental change, but it's not impossible. A self-image that recognizes that we can be leaders, thought leaders when it comes to innovation - especially in these tough economic times and especially when we're looking at two wars, a tough economy and innovation in terms of fundamental operations of government lagging.

How do we make sure that we're at the forefront? Under President Obama's leadership, one of the first things he did after he was sworn into office was sign a memorandum about transparency and open government. And that is going to be one of the key agenda items that we're going to be pushing in this administration.

What is transparency? What does transparency in open government look like? I submit to you to look at as a model, as a leading indicator of what you can expect from this administration in terms of engaging citizens, making sure that we put information out there in the public domain and a different worldview of what it means to be a citizen.... [What] the idea of citizenship in terms of civic participation and transparency or open government allow you to do is to embrace the notion that the government is about we the people and that it's taxpayer dollars that are being spent.

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. That's one of the central pillars of this administration as we talk about driving forward, as far as radical transparency is concerned.

Another model - and these are things you can expect to see - is the idea of a platform. What I mean by that is we're going to be publishing government data and beginning with a default assumption that information should be [available] to the people, not with the default assumption that information should not be in the public domain. If you look at what happened when data has been democratized, when data has been put in the public domain, you've had an explosion of innovation.

An example that I like to talk about is what happened...when defense satellites allowed people to triangulate where they were in terms of geospatial location. It created a whole new market, a whole new economy when it comes to navigation to the point where you can go on your iPhone right now and see where you are and where the closest...public services are or restaurants are. Or you can go to your local car rental shop and get a [Global Positioning System] device in your car so you can go to a new city where you have not been or don't know your way around.

Same thing with the Human Genome Project. A decision was made from a public policy perspective to [put] the human genome DNA analysis out there in the public domain rather than hoarding it and keeping it within the government.

Along those lines, imagine the vast repository of rich data and information that the federal government has and what people could do if they could have access to that information and how it could change the engagement model in terms of giving people access so they can help co-create a more perfect union.

The second core principle involves engaging citizens, and you're beginning to see this with what the New Media team is doing on, which is opening up the government and at the same time allowing people to engage in terms of the public debate. That was done with the transition team, as far as core ideas are concerned, in terms of the focus, the key priorities of the country. Now you're going to be able to do it at an agency level.

We're going to be rolling out an ambitious agenda on how you can engage in the operations of government on a day-to-day basis, whether that's rule-making or whether that has to do with health and human services, across the board.

Another area that we're really focused on - this is the third pillar of the agenda - is lowering the cost of government operations. We're asking a very, very simple question, which is: In your personal life, as a consumer, if you can go out there and buy technology for 1/10th the cost of what the federal government pays, why is that? What makes the government so special that it can't embrace some of these consumer technologies? What makes this government process so different that there's no way the government can take advantage of the Darwinian pressures in the consumer space to fundamentally innovate and to lower the cost of technologies?

So [we're] looking at some of those technologies and embracing technologies that make sense while at the same time preserving the unique mission of the government in terms of security and protecting privacy for the people. Along those lines, there are two things we're looking at. One is cloud computing and the model around cloud computing and asking how can we leverage some of the innovations that have happened in the last decade?

Instead of being a laggard in terms of adopting some of these innovations, we [want] to make sure we get ahead. To that end, we've already created a body within the CIO Council that's exploring how the federal government can move forward more aggressively in that direction.

Second area around the consumer technology space is looking at the vast array of free services that are provided in the consumer space and asking a simple question: Why should the federal government continue to build infrastructure when it's available for free in some cases? And in other cases, what can we do to ensure that the technologies that all of you here are displaying at FOSE can be leveraged in a way that makes sense - an increase of velocity as far as procurement is concerned.

That's going to be one of the central barriers as we look forward...that we need to address when it comes to technology, especially because if it takes two to three years to go through a procurement...and as processor speeds and technology innovate much faster, by the time the [deal] is made, we've bought something that makes no sense. We need to...rethink how technology specifically is procured in the federal government.

Fourth pillar is finding the innovative path, and what we want to do is not continue on a trajectory where things don't work. We don't want to throw good money after bad money. We want to look at innovations. We want to look at innovations not just in technology because at the end of the day, what technology is doing essentially is it's enabling processes within the public sector. We have to make sure [those processes] are focused on the citizens, providing services effectively and efficiently and ensuring as we look at innovations [that] they're targeted innovations.

One, technology for technology's sake is useless. It needs to enable a core mission. The core mission when you look at some of the most complex systems across the federal government, we need to stop dissecting and looking at them as one - again, going back to being so special that no one else can do it. Two, [we need to make] sure that we're injecting innovations across the country that are happening, and three, [we need to look] at models that have succeeded so that we're not investing in projects or initiatives that are risky and untried in some ways but balancing that against fundamentally rethinking how the government works.

A lot of time what ends up happening is we have these processes that have been there for hundreds of years, and we're looking for technology, a solution to essentially take us back hundreds of years rather than saying: What innovations have happened and how do we fundamentally change the way the government operates?

A simple example is an explosion in Web 2.0 technologies. We need to re-engineer on the back end - not the technologies but the staff and the teams within agencies to make sure that they're better positioned to take advantage of some of these technologies and drive hard in that direction.

I know that this is going to be tough. I know it's not going to be easy, and it's not going to happen overnight, especially if you look at the fact that there are over 4 million federal employees and there are over 10,000 IT systems in the government. A lot of hard work and a lot of good work has happened, and what I intend to do is...leverage the federal employees who have dedicated their life's work to moving forward, to really challenging the status quo and not be stuck in bureaucratic quicksand by not tapping into the talent that's there within the federal government because I can tell you, having spent some time within the federal agencies, I've been amazed that some of the smartest people I've ever met in my life are federal government employees.

What happened is [that] over the years, unfortunately, they've been restrained, they've been taught that the best way to survive is not to take any risks, and they haven't been liberated in terms of testing out their ideas and making sure that they embrace innovation on a day-to-day basis.

So that's one. And secondly, the ecosystem of innovation is not going to be limited just to the government but to all the partners that help drive this country forward on a day-to-day basis. The vendors, a lot of whom are in this room: Make sure that you help us move forward on the right path and you call out those initiatives that are not working. If there are problems that are happening, [we] would much rather know upfront, get ahead of the problem, [rather] than engage in a [project] that [is] millions of dollars over budget and a technology that was engineered to fail anyway.

We also want to be able to tap into the ingenuity of the American people. That's why you'll see this agenda of finding an innovative path, lowering the cost of government operations, engaging citizens and radical transparency [because it] ultimately pulls we the people, the citizens of the United States, closer to their government.... But at the same time, we're asking people to move the government forward. It won't happen because there's one person who is here. It won't happen because there's one part of the ecosystem that's going to work. It's going to take the vendor community, the American citizens, the federal workforce and all of us working together to push forward with a vision of creating a more perfect union through technology and recognizing that the modern economy is powered by technology.

To that end, when I talk about modern [society] being powered by technology, we also need to recognize that we need to secure it. As you know, the president has charged Melissa Hathaway to conduct a 60-day review of security across the United States - not just limited to the federal government but the public and private sectors because we recognize that the majority of the infrastructure is in the private sector anyway.

So with that, I want to thank everybody, and I hope you have a great rest of the conference. I look forward to working with each of you. Thank you.


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