Federal CIO Kundra Decamps for Greener Pastures of Harvard
In 2009, the appointment of Vivek Kundra as the first chief information officer of the United States sent a fundamental signal about the values of the then-incoming administration of Barack Obama. As economic and financial crises loomed on every side, America’s technological wizardry, which had made its private sector the envy of the world, would be thoughtfully brought to bear on the grinding, inefficient machinery of government as a way of solving some of the wider problems then coming into focus.
Kundra carried a bit of a reputation as a wunderkind. Born in New Delhi, reared in Tanzania before moving to the Washington, D.C., area, and fluent in Swahili, Hindi and English, he hit perfectly the ideal of the bright young minds marching into Washington after the 2008 election, seeking to cast out the crusty defenders of the seemingly incurable institutional inertia for which the nation’s capital is infamous and leave in its place a government whose parts looked shiny and new.
A big problem with the federal government, he said in the final days of the Bush-to-Obama transition, was that “process had trumped outcome.” Complying with the rules made it near impossible to spur innovation within the halls of government. His brief as he assumed office in early 2009 was to change that.
Today he announced plans to step down and take a position at Harvard University, where he will be a joint fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. (See Harvard’s statement here.) So what was the overall effect of his two years and change in office?
As the CTO of the government of the District of Columbia, he famously adopted Google Apps and did away with Microsoft Office as that body’s standard office suite for its 38,000 employees. A similar effort to bring Google Apps to federal agencies quickly got messy as it devolved into a squabble between Microsoft and Google.
On other fronts, Kundra sought to inject the kind of common sense to which official Washington has often been resistant. He loosened rules on government-issued wireless phones because federal employees hated the devices they were being given, approving iPhones and BlackBerrys and even the occasional iPad for use at federal agencies, provided they could be made secure.
Ostensibly in charge of some $80 billion in information technology spending — arguably the largest IT budget in the world — he aimed to make agencies more accountable for their spending. He launched an IT spending dashboard intended to allow people to see for themselves how money was being spent. The result was about what you’d expect: Many federal IT projects were over budget, behind schedule, not delivering the needed result or some combination of all three. He ordered some cut back, others killed.
Openness and transparency, constant bywords of the early Obama presidency, were made real by Data.gov, paymentaccuracy.gov and USASpending.gov. Citizens could, in theory, look in on the spending of their tax dollars with no more effort than that required for a Google search. In coming weeks, these and other sites like them will either freeze or go dark entirely, having lost their funding. Some of these included sites in Kundra’s portfolio.
A convert to the new religion of cloud computing, he announced last month plans to move 78 different government programs that today account for $20 billion in spending to cloud-based services in order to save $5 billion a year. He talked about the plan at length with AllThingsD on May 25.
The amount of savings at first seems impressive but it really isn’t. A $5 billion reduction in spending considered in the context of the $3.8 trillion budget amounts to less than one fifth of 1 percent of federal outlays. What’s not clear is whether the cloudward shift in government he has proposed yields a wider return on investment beyond mere financial savings.
The fundamental mission of IT is to enable people to get more work done faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost than before. Will federal workers become faster, more productive and more effectual if and when Kundra’s cloud is fully operational? Will government, as a result, become even slightly more responsive to the people in whose name it exists? Time will tell, but we can only hope. Making sure that happens will be the task of the next CIO of the United States — that is, if there is to be one at all.