Will Kundra's 5 top initiatives survive?
As the nation’s first federal CIO, Vivek Kundra brought a high-energy approach to the job and a wealth of fresh ideas to promote innovation and efficiency. He won support, sparked conversation and elbowed the status quo out of the way a few times.
But it remains to be seen whether his initiatives have staying power now that he has left the government.
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Kundra gained visibility quickly in his first months on the job with a rapid-fire progression of open-government and open-data initiatives, including Data.gov and the federal IT Dashboard. He followed up with major campaigns to consolidate federal data centers, adopt cloud technologies and improve IT management under a comprehensive 25-point plan.
In August, as he left for a position at Harvard University, he lobbed a parting shot by asserting that an “IT cartel” of large federal contractors was to blame for delays in adopting cloud computing and other efficiency measures.
We asked several experts whether Kundra’s initiatives have enough momentum to succeed without him.
1. Data center consolidation
An inventory completed in July uncovered more than 2,000 federal data centers, nearly double Kundra’s earlier estimate. The Obama administration aims to close 373 data centers by the end of 2012. Agency plans for doing their share are due in October.
Although the data center initiative is unwieldy and implementation could take years, experts give it a surprisingly good chance of success. Factors in its favor are ongoing budget constraints and the potential savings inherent in cloud computing, which reduces the need to provide and manage locally stored data.
“Ultimately, the consolidation will take place due to lack of budget to support [the agencies] standing alone in their own centers,” said Jamie Dos Santos, CEO of Terremark Federal Group, an IT solutions vendor. The need to provide access to an ever-growing amount of federal data without costly hardware upgrades will further fuel consolidation, she added.
Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of TechAmerica’s Public Sector Group, generally agreed with that assessment, although she foresees some short-term difficulties for data center consolidation now that Kundra is gone.
“No one disagrees that it is important, but we have learned it is harder to do, takes time, and in some cases, there are no immediate savings,” she said.
Nonetheless, she believes budget pressures in the next several years are likely to improve the prospects for consolidation.
"Consolidation just makes so much sense that it will continue, even if the new federal CIO does not make it a priority,” Grkavac said.
Data.gov, one of Kundra’s early initiatives, started modestly but has grown into what is arguably one of the largest online repositories of government data, and it has inspired several open-data movements worldwide. A recent review showed that Data.gov offered more than 380,000 federal datasets free to the public.
With its high visibility and recognition as an impetus for innovation, Data.gov has many supporters, and even without Kundra to guide its growth, it is likely here to stay, said Daniel Chenok, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.
“As citizens and businesses make greater use of technology to sort through large datasets via more applications, the promise of Data.gov will grow,” Chenok said. “There are many open-data initiatives from other governments and in the private sector, and this will continue to increase.”
But Data.gov’s funding, although modest, appears to be at risk. The site initially operated on a share of the $34 million federal e-government fund, but Congress abruptly shrank that pool to $8 million and seems unlikely to reverse course.
“Data.gov may be still vulnerable to downsizing as a consequence of budget tightening, as the whole open-government initiatives were already threatened a few months ago,” said Andrea Di Maio, a vice president at Gartner Research.
3. IT Dashboard
Kundra touted the online IT Dashboard as a powerful tool that helped identify $3 billion in federal IT savings. Proponents say the application was a milestone for transparency, but critics complain that the data is not always timely or accurate.
Although the IT dashboard has support, its future is not secure in the face of ongoing budget concerns, Grkavac said. In fact, lawmakers targeted the dashboard and other e-government programs for cuts in fiscal 2011.
“I would be surprised if it is as high of a priority as some of the other initiatives,” she added.
On the other hand, some lawmakers find the dashboard to be extremely useful, and it has developed some momentum in the IT community, she said.
But Kundra’s dashboard will only be as useful as what future federal CIOs make of it, and the full picture is unclear, said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency advocacy organization.
“It is difficult to imagine a CIO getting rid of it,” Wonderlich said. “But it is a bit of a narrower concern.”
4. Cloud-first strategy
Kundra wanted to make government more like the private sector with regard to technology by keeping it up-to-date on the latest innovations and enabling nimble, efficient operations. One of the trends he supported was the move to moving computing services to the cloud rather than buying in-house systems.
He pushed agencies to adopt cloud computing to fix problems with redundant and old infrastructures, and he claimed that the government could save $3 billion a year by switching to cloud technologies. In the fiscal 2012 budget proposal, the Obama administration wanted to devote 25 percent of the IT budget — about $20 billion a year — to cloud computing. But several agencies, including the State Department, have balked, citing security concerns.
Although progress has been slow, Kundra’s cloud-first strategy is likely to continue even without him, said Don Arnold, director of government programs at the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council (ACT/IAC).
“Cloud computing is a technological reality,” Arnold said. “Everything is living in the cloud.”
Ray Muslimani, CEO of Global Computer Enterprises, said Kundra’s legacy has been a shift in thinking about how the federal government manages IT.
“By moving to cloud-based solutions, we are taking the necessary steps to transition away from the too-big-not-to-fail systems of the past,” Muslimani said. “The government is finally moving away from the idea of building something from scratch, focusing on hardware. We’re beginning to embrace the idea of technology as a service that enables the mission."
5. IT management reform
Kundra’s 25-point plan for reforming IT management zeroed in on areas that stretch from buying IT to having a workforce that understands technology and its evolutions. Some experts have said the new IT career track is one of the firmest points in the memo, especially because IT is becoming the foundation of all agency activities and, at the same time, growing so complex and expensive. Experts said the plan gets to the heart of good IT management, particularly with regard to efficiency.
Ken Allen, executive director of ACT/IAC, said the plan encourages agencies to make sure their IT workforce is knowledgeable about all aspects of IT, including how to buy technology faster using an agile acquisition process.
Although Kundra’s plan might be renamed and restructured over time, the principles will remain effective, Allen said.
“Who can really argue with any of those objectives?” he asked.
Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FedSources, said Kundra’s plan is based on common-sense ways to improve operations.
However, Bjorklund also noted that some of the ideas are already enshrined in regulation but simply ignored. For example, the Federal Acquisition Regulation requires agencies to use fixed-price contracts instead of more risky types.
So for the most part, the 25 initiatives will remain good goals, but agencies will likely struggle to incorporate them.