Kundra era signals digital shift for government

Federal CIO should tap pockets of agency innovators to overcome budget, culture barriers to broad Web 2.0 approach.

Vivek Kundra, the newly appointed federal chief information officer, has laid out a vision for open and accessible government that, if successful, would turn the prevailing view of how agencies operate upside-down and usher in the next generation of technology across government.

Profile: Vivek Kundra, 34

Position: Federal chief information officer and Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and information technology

Previous positions:

  • District of Columbia chief technology officer
  • Commonwealth of Virginia’s assistant secretary of commerce and technology
  • Arlington County, Va., director of infrastructure technology

Sample Projects as DC CTO:

  • Contracted Google Apps licenses for 38,000 users to reduce cost of enterprise software and encourage D.C. employees to create their own sites and collaborate with co-workers.
  • Testing the migration of e-mail to cloud computing.
  • Sponsored AppsForDemocracy contest, which led to 47 new applications, to motivate volunteers to build apps for Web or mobile phones.
  • Office of CTO established Digital Public Square for data feed access.
  • Managing IT portfolio management like stock market trading floor.

Kundra will find federal employees who will want to be part of the digital shift, said Mark Forman, a partner at KPMG who was the first Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and IT. He said Kundra, who also holds Forman’s old title, brings a fresh approach to e-government, fostering openness in government through the application of Internet practices and principles.

For example, Kundra plans to launch a Web site called Data.gov to make public the massive volumes of data that the government holds. The data would provide the information that individuals, businesses and nongovernmental organizations could use “to help us think through how we address some of the toughest problems in the public sector,” he said.

Kundra implemented a similar strategy in his previous role as chief technology officer for the District of Columbia. While there, Kundra provided data feeds and challenged the public and private sectors to use the data and submit new Web services, mashups or Web 2.0 applications. Now he wants to expand the scale of such ideas to the national level.

Even with agencies’ resistance to change, Forman found from his own experience that most federal employees want a more modern and effective government.

“I think the difference from what he did in D.C. to what he can do in the federal government is that there are a lot more federal employees who have bright innovative ideas and who want to be part of this transformation,” Forman said.

Kundra can expect pushback from agencies in making data more accessible, but he is an old hand at the challenge of converting bureaucracies into engines of efficiency, said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum. Obama chose Kundra because the president knows that innovation has to happen in determining how to reboot the federal bureaucracy, Rasiej said.

“For those of us who believe that the future success of our government lies in opening up data to the public, Vivek Kundra’s appointment is like winning the lottery,” Rasiej said.

Kundra’s appointment and his primary agenda items, including Data.gov, confirm the administration’s strong focus on transparency and openness, said Dave McClure, managing vice president at Gartner and a former director of IT management at the Government Accountability Office. But there will be questions about how agencies will put the information online, which is just as important as what they put online.

“For it to be meaningful to citizens, it’s going to have to be digestible and understandable and have some kind of context and meaning to it, as opposed to just a massive data dump,” he said.

Individuals will need a channel through which they can provide feedback to the administration. Agencies also might have problems in putting some information on the Web. State governments and some federal agencies are already complaining about Recovery.gov, the administration’s site for tracking the use of stimulus funds. Some organizations are finding that their systems are not designed to easily feed data to Web sites, McClure said.

“There are some pieces to this that will be revealing in terms of the effort and additional cost to put the transparency in place,” he said.

With budget issues in mind while serving in the D.C. city government, Kundra took advantage of collaborative tools and technologies to get more capabilities. “The way we used to buy technology worked well for acquiring client/server siloed applications,” Forman said. “In the Web 2.0 environment, a lot of this changes, and he understands that.”

Agencies have used capabilities such as service-oriented architecture to make existing applications Web-enabled. That was transitional, Forman said. What Kundra was doing in the district government, and what he would bring to the federal government, “is the next generation after SOA : Make the data available and let the market forces and innovation of the community come up with the way to use that data with problem-solving tools.”

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