What Kundra's legacy says about federal IT

Efforts to assess the federal CIO's successes and failures are complicated by the reality of the federal IT bureaucracy.

Assessing the legacy of outgoing Federal CIO Vivek Kundra is complicated.

Although much can be said about Kundra’s leadership style, his successes and failures are hopelessly entangled with the culture of the bureaucracy he managed. That’s the tricky part of being the federal CIO: The authority of the position is limited by the conflicting priorities of managers working in the bowels of that bureaucracy.

That’s the underlying assumption of most efforts to size up Kundra’s legacy. Many statements about his work are effectively statements about the federal IT culture. With that in mind, here is a roundup of what people have said.

The upside

A great communicator. Kundra went a long way toward remaking the federal government’s image in the IT industry, writes Jon Oltsik, a consulting blogger at Network World. Kundra was also adept at giving IT vendors insight into federal IT strategies and requirements. “Kundra made federal IT cool,” Oltsik writes.

A change agent. During his short tenure, Kundra was able to jump-start some fairly ambitious initiatives (cloud computing, data center consolidation, IT management reform), largely by virtue of his charisma. “The departure of Kundra draws some comparisons with the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been just as closely linked with his initiatives,” writes Marjorie Censer at the Washington Post. (Also a downside; see below.)

The downside

A short-timer. People who have been through the grinder will tell you that two and a half years is a long time in such a high-profile job. Others will say that’s just long enough to get initiatives started but not so long that you have to worry about the follow-through. Oltsik is in the latter camp. “If things don’t work out, critics will ultimately blame any failures on poor execution, not a drive-by leader who didn’t stick around to see his vision become reality," he writes.

A change agent. Although some observers believe Kundra’s initiatives have enough momentum to keep going after his departure, others are not so sure. “Since the force of his personality has been credited with the rapid adoption of cloud computing as a major driver of reform, one can’t help but wonder if this move will also signal the apogee of reform activity,” writes Kevin Jackson at Forbes.

The mitigating factors

Foot-draggers. For all of Kundra’s talk about cloud computing, how successful was he in getting agency buy-in? David Linthicum, blogging at InfoWorld, gives the Obama administration a D-plus at best in that area. “At the heart of the matter is that CIOs have operational responsibilities and only enough budget to get to the end of each year,” he writes. Therefore, the kind of major shift envisioned by Kundra was not in the cards.

Frustrated ambition? People have often speculated that Kundra, a change agent at heart, was bound to get frustrated by the federal government’s massive bureaucracy. And now the administration is mired in an ugly budget battle, which is hardly conducive to innovative thinking. For one reason or another, “the pace of change was probably not fast enough for someone with Kundra’s stated ambitions,” writes Ann All at IT Business Edge.

NEXT STORY: The limits of communication

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