New federal CIO gets praise, advice from community

The White House’s appointment of former Microsoft and federal agency executive Steven VanRoekel as the new Federal CIO replacing Vivek Kundra was met with enthusiastic congratulations on Aug. 4, but not all the reaction was positive.

The federal IT community praised VanRoekel’s record in transforming the IT infrastructure and website at the Federal Communications Commission during the last two years. He moved the website's infrastructure from local servers to the cloud, converted it to open-source code and began numerous crowdsourcing discussions with IT developers and the public.

Since June, he has been executive director of citizen and organizational engagement at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“I wanted to let people know the good news; I bear witness that Steven's the real deal,” Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, wrote in an Aug. 4 article at the HuffingtonPost.

News of VanRoekel’s appointment buzzed quickly around the Twitter universe, and his personal Twitter account @stevenvDC picked up more than 300 followers within the first few hours of his appointment to the post. VanRoekel confirmed the appointment by changing the job title in his Twitter profile shortly before the official announcement from the White House.

VanRoekel is taking over leadership responsibility for the $80 billion federal IT portfolio from Kundra at a time of budgetary uncertainty due to the debt reduction law approved by President Barack Obama and the Congress earlier this week. Under the law, federal agencies are facing $900 billion in budget reductions over 10 years, along with an additional $1.5 trillion to be identified by a special congressional committee by November and voted on by December. It is presumed that IT budgets would be included as a possible target for cuts, although the amounts and proportions of the cuts are not known.

In addition, earlier this year, Congress cut the Electronic Government Fund budget from $34 million to $8 million, despite calls from Kundra and many others to maintain it because it was generating efficiencies. The high-profile e-government fund supports many projects including Data.gov and the Federal IT dashboard, a visibility tool that Kundra said had identified $3 billion in savings on underperforming IT investments.

“Fight for a budget,” Steve Ressler, founder and chief executive of GovLoop, a social network for government, wrote as advice to VanRoekel on Aug. 4. “Part of the difficulty of the job of federal CIO is you have a great bully pulpit but often you don't have the teeth and you rarely have any budget. Vivek was able to carve out a $50M e-gov fund until it got cut -- these funds are critical as it allows you to pilot some of your fresh ideas and cross-agency ideas.”

VanRoekel, in his initial statements after the appointment, said he would continue the initiatives begun by Kundra, as well as continue the focus on cybersecurity and has already met with White House cyber czar Howard Schmidt.

Kundra’s major programs have included the 25-point plan for improving agency IT spending, the federal IT dashboard and TechStat meetings to track progress and reforms in IT management, federal data center consolidation, shifts to cloud computing, advancing innovation with challenges and contest and making the government more transparent and federal data more freely available on Data.gov.

“Rarely do you get to take over in a place where so much good work has been done and so much momentum is already established with teams charging ahead at full steam,” VanRoekel told a reporter from Politico on Aug. 4.

VanRoekel also told a New York Times reporter he would carry on Kundra’s legacy.

“We’re trying to make sure that the pace of innovation in the private sector can be applied to the model that is government,” VanRoekel was quoted as saying in an article.

Although the majority of the reaction was positive, a few bloggers and commentators noted that VanRoekel’s name had not surfaced in previous discussions about the next federal CIO. Presumably that could have occurred because of an expectation that the new leader would be at a federal CIO level at a cabinet agency, or at a comparable level from the private sector. The FCC, where VanRoekel served as managing director, is not a cabinet-level commission.

What some might question is whether VanRoekel “has the leadership experience that is required of a position that dictates how federal agencies will manage their IT processes and purchases,” Jill Aitoro wrote in the Washington Business Journal blog.

VanRoekel’s ties to Microsoft and his political contributions to Obama’s inaugural festivities also came into question. VanRoekel donated the maximum $50,000 allowed to the inauguration events, according to an article in ComputerWorld. The article also quoted Ray Bjorklund, senior executive director of FedSources market research firm, commenting that Microsoft competitors may feel a little nervous about the appointment, even without any evidence of favortism on his part.

"Industry may have suspicions, but they may not be well founded suspicions," Bjorklund said in the article.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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