Editor's Desk

Old rules thwart new tools

It was surely an unfortunate twist of fate: Just as the nation’s newly appointed federal chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, was delivering his first major speech on the future of information technology in government, FBI agents were searching the District of Columbia offices of associates from his past.

Kundra was not accused of any wrongdoing. But just hours after his speech March 12, and only a week after taking the position, Kundra was on leave of absence, awaiting the results of the FBI investigation.

Kundra’s reputation for grasping the new economics of open-source software and Web-based technologies earned him widespread praise. Many have wondered, however, whether he has the skills to tackle the byzantine rules and appropriations process that entangle federal IT projects. Not to mention that the office he would inherit, which manages the government’s massive $71 billion IT portfolio, has only nine full-time employees.

Whatever Kundra’s fate, his message at the FOSE trade show underscored four principles that guide the president’s vision for taking advantage of IT:

  • Promote transparency by making most government information available by default.
  • Engage the public by adopting new interactive media tools to facilitate debate.
  • Lower operating costs by using free or inexpensive applications and remote computing power routinely available to consumers.
  • Rekindle innovation by rechanneling the government's technology talent.

However, if President Barack Obama is intent on using new media tools to engage the citizenry, one thing is clear: A number of regulations and procurement rules will need to be rewritten.

Take the Paperwork Reduction Act. Language intended to reduce the burden of collecting information from the public effectively prevents agencies from gathering feedback or user-generated content online. Adding a Web survey, under Section 3508, requires proof that the information has practical utility — and final approval from the Office of Management and Budget. That can take months.

Another OMB memo (M-00-13) prohibits federal Web sites from using persistent cookies except under certain conditions. That undermines a wide range of Web 2.0 applications.

Agency Web managers, meanwhile, face a thicket of legal issues every time they have to sign a license agreement on YouTube, Flickr or other sites that the public takes for granted.

These and other issues will need to be resolved if the president and his new CIO are to realize their vision for a Web 2.0-enabled government.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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