Could government keep pace with Kundra?

The new federal chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, shows an appreciation for Web 2.0 and a distaste for cumbersome government procurement.

Vivek Kundra

President Barack Obama today named Vivek Kundra, who had been the chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., to the job of  federal chief information officer. The role will also encompass the former title of the Office of Management and Budget's Administrator for E-Government and Information Technology, a job that had been previously thought of as the federal CIO.

Kundra's appointment seems a logical step forward for the federal government, even it could cause a bit of duress on the part of federal agencies, many of which have valued deliberation over speed, a trait Kundra has railed against.

As Dan Munz at Government Executive blogged, the e-gov czar role, created to help carry out the E-Government Act of 2002, provides leadership for federal agencies in efforts to promote "electronic Government services and processes."

Historically, this role of e-gov czar has been about pushing agencies outside their comfort zones.

The former e-gov czar, Karen Evans, prodded agencies to go through the sometimes painful though necessary work of securing their networks and computers, through OMB mandates such as Trusted Internet Connections, the Federal Desktop Core Configuration and the migration to Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). Agencies are still toiling to meet some of those mandates.

Her predecessor, and the first e-gov czar, Mark Forman introduced agencies to the idea of looking at their IT systems in a systemic and holistic fashion, through the use of enterprise architecture. Forman was deep; many are still trying to decipher some of his more profound observations. Also, he showed how agencies could work together to get e-gov projects off the ground, despite slim funding from Congress.

With Kundra, agencies can expect to see more calls for change, in particular around greater transparency and more use of Web 2.0 and cloud computing technologies, at least if Kundra's role at D.C. is any indication. There, he championed such causes, often as a cheaper, faster alternative to the typical government ways of procuring technology.

"One the biggest problems in government is that process has trumped outcome," he said in one video interview. "As everyone is focused on compliance, no one is thinking about innovation."

Last fall, GCN had covered how the city of D.C. had contracted Google Apps licenses for 38,000 users, for a contract worth about $500,000 a year.

Kundra explained that going with Google Apps could cut the cost of procuring enterprise software while at the same time making it easier for the D.C. employee to interact with coworkers. "Why should I spend millions on enterprise apps when I can do it at one-tenth cost and 10 times the speed? It's a win-win for me," he has been quoted as saying.

During a Webcast GCN held in January, Rob Mancini, who is the D.C. Office of the CTO  program manager for citywide messaging for D.C., talked about the city's use of the Google online apps. He said that Kundra had instructed each D.C. employee to set up a Web site within Google Sites. "By requiring people to create their own sites, they learn what they can do with the technology," Mancini said. And when they need to share information with other employees, they knew how to do so in an easy fashion. Mancini himself found the process quite easier than burning a CD or e-mailing search results or using other techniques to convey some piece of needed information.

Mancini also mentioned that the employee use of the online Google spreadsheet has been particularly successful. During a project, instead of mailing spreadsheets around, employees just log into Google and do their work on a common spreadsheet. This is also effective insofar that employees can log in from home without using dedicated virtual private networking (VPN) software. Google Apps is using D.C.'s user authentication system, so a separate log-on service is not needed.

E-mail is another app that OCTO is moving to the cloud. The e-mail of about 20,000 employees is now being forwarded from Microsoft Exchange servers to their Gmail accounts, Mancini said. One Webcast listener questioned the need for the Exchange servers at all, but Mancini noted the city is still testing Gmail, and wouldn't make any sort of statement yet as to if or when the in-house servers would be eliminated.

Behind this shift to Google apps seems to be a conviction that commercial IT services could be more efficient than in-house systems. In the GCN article, Kundra marveled at how the average person with a laptop and a broadband connection has just as much computer power as the average police officer or school teacher.

"He said one reason [for this technical reticence] is agencies' preference for in-house, proprietary or custom solutions, which officials believe offer more security," the article stated. Such security worries are overblown, at least in most cases, Kundra felt. "If you think about it, there is very little the government does that is private," he told GCN.

Another set of projects Kundra spearheaded shows a conviction to openness: that agencies could benefit by publishing their data so that others can use them for their purposes. Last year, D.C. published over 240 data feeds all of which came from internal systems, ranging from metro timetables to crime reports.

In order to spur applications that use this data, Kundra then kicked off a contest, called AppsForDemocracy. Instead of building out applications that the public could use itself, D.C. hoped to motivate volunteers to build apps, for either the Web or for mobile phones or some other platform. The effort led to more than 47 new apps being built, at a fraction of the cost of building them in-house.

Again, by relying on this new approach to IT system procurement, namely by using Web 2.0 tools and crowdsourcing, agencies could save money. The city estimated that, if it were to commission all these apps that were built for AppsForDemocracy individually, it would cost more than $2.6 million. Running the contest came to only about $50,000. (The OCTO also created its own site, the Digital Public Square to make data feed information available as well).

These are just a few of the new initiatives that have come from Kundra. His office has also opened the city's procurement process, publishing request-for-proposals on the Web and offering introductory information on YouTube. In-house, his employees use Wikis and Twitter-like messaging service, and he has floated the idea of "letting drivers pay parking tickets and renew driver's licenses on Facebook," the Post reported.

Behind these initiatives, obviously, is a belief that technology could be used for positive change. Not surprisingly, Kundra was a supporter of the Barack Obama presidential campaign, which also spoke of government change. Kundra has stated that his career goal is to "to affect change as a public servant."

And like Obama, Kundra shares an international upbringing. If Wikipedia is to be believed, he was born in India and grew up in Tanzania, speaking Swahili as his first language. When he was 11, his family moved to Gaithersburg, Md. He majored in psychology as an undergrad, and he earned a masters degree in information technology from the University of Maryland. He is also a graduate of the University of Virginia's Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. Before coming to D.C., he served as Virginia's Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology. He's also spent time on the private sector at SAIC and as chief executive officer of startup Creostar.

Not surprisingly, he has brought some of the swiftness of the business world to his government work. For instance, he set up the OCTO office to run like an open trading floor. He even uses financial portfolio management software to track the success of IT projects. "The main work area is set up to resemble the trading floor of a stock exchange; the open seating format encourages collaboration, while monitors attached to the walls provide up-to-date information on all projects currently under way," NextGov reported.

Sometimes, however, his enthusiasm for sprightliness has run ahead of his execution. At D.C., he led a $4 million effort to seed over 6,300 computers to D.C. schools. The Washington Post reported that there have been "several glitches" rolling out computers to the schools system, the fault of which at least one education administrator has pinned to the OCTO. Another hiccup reported by the Post: He took his people out on a retreat before getting full authorization, costing the city $23,000.

So, it would not be a stretch to assume that, in his new role, Kundra would look to make better use of the rapidly evolving Web 2.0 world. "Vivek is someone who can bridge those sectors [of government and commercial IT] to really unleash innovation," Arun Gupta, a partner at venture capital firm Columbia Capital, told the Post.

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