Kundra departure puts IT progress at risk
Vivek Kundra has been a forceful leader for change in federal IT, say many observers. What will happen to the efforts now under way when he leaves the federal CIO post in August?
Federal CIO Vivek Kundra’s departure from government is going to be a serious blow to federal IT programs, if the first wave of reaction to the news is any indication.
Most of the work Kundra started is “at risk of ending abruptly,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation.
Wonderlich praised Kundra’s work to strengthen the Office of Management and Budget’s role as a publisher of government data. “While OMB is still largely unwilling to force agencies to share more information, Vivek built the Data.gov and the IT Dashboard as tools to aggressively pursue transparency that affects how the government works,” Wonderlich said.
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OMB Director Jake Lew announced on June 16 that Kundra will leave his government post in August to become a joint fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Steve Ressler, founder and president of GovLoop social network for federal executives, said he believes Data.gov will be Kundra’s greatest legacy. “It truly took open data to the next level and sparked a movement that spans across many countries and across state and local government,” Ressler said.
However, “with the electronic government fund being cut, and Congress hesitant to codify important transparency requirements, we risk seeing Vivek's successes become temporary gains,” Wonderlich said. “That's why we're hoping the White House chooses a successor for his position who shares his belief that technology can be used to change government for the better, by making it more transparent and accountable.”
Congress recently reduced the e-government fund to $8 million for fiscal 2011, from $34 million enacted last year. The fund covers projects that include USASpending.gov, Data.gov, Performance.gov and the Federal IT Dashboard. Kundra recently announced that due to those cuts, the FedSpace social network for federal employees would be canceled and the other programs would continue to operate but with reduced spending for future capabilities.
Kundra was “probably the most visionary CIO we’ve ever had,” said William Eggers, public sector research director for Deloitte. “He pushed the envelope on cloud computing and modularization, helped make the US a leader in data democracy and put a spotlight on the dismal track record of many large federal IT initiatives. Vivek will be a very hard act to follow.”
“He set a new standard for the next CIO,” said Paul Brubaker, CEO of Synteractive.
The CIO needs to have an in-depth knowledge of government operations, including intergovernmental relationships, as more arms of government — even state and local entities -— become more closely tied through technology, Brubaker said. Further, the next CIO has to be creative, innovative and willing “to take on the antibodies of change.”
In the 1990s, Brubaker was one of the congressional staff members who helped draft the Clinger-Cohen Act. Kundra's work as CIO included advancing the principles of that law, and "I think he got it right," Brubaker said.
Mark Forman, co-founder of Government Transaction Services and former administrator of e-government and IT at OMB, said he thinks Kundra's departure will not be detrimental to progress of IT reform. The Clinger-Cohen Act and the E-Government Act of 2002 lay out the key directions for a federal CIO, and the Obama administration could find a capable replacement, he said.
"I'm hopeful the administration will find a replacement that will bring the same form of vision, energy and understanding on how to fulfill [the position's] responsibilities," he said.
Also, although Kundra is giving up his government power, his new position at Harvard will be an excellent "perch" to provide feedback and insight to the administration, Forman said.
Jerry Williams, CIO of the Housing and Urban Development department, said Kundra provided the federal IT community with a clear vision for streamlining the delivery of service improvements across government. "His legacy of defining incremental improvements and managing project teams to meet identified goals should and likely will continue due to the momentum that he has created," Williams said.
Another of Kundra’s key accomplishments was the 25-point IT management reform plan, said Jamie Gracia, president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting. Gracia said he is confident the government won’t retreat from the plan after Kundra leaves.
"Vivek Kundra's 25-point plan was revolutionary and bold, and by and large it was received positively," said Steve Kousen, partner and vice-president of federal engineering and cloud computing services at Unisys.
The work by the American Council on Technology/Industry Advisory Council on the plan will become more vital, though, said Gracia, who is a member of the ACT/IAC Acquisition Shared Interest Group.
Kousen also said Kundra's work implementing the administration's cloud-first policy won't be wasted. It will continue, albeit with new leadership. "The cloud computing business model is here to stay," he said. "The economics have proven that."
Gadi Ben-Yehuda, social media director for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, noted Kundra’s support for cloud computing and work to move government systems to the cloud. Ben-Yehuda worked for Kundra when Kundra served as CTO for Washington, D.C.'s government just before landing the White House job.
Although Kundra moved quickly, not everything came to full fruition, Ressler added. “Government procurement is a tough nut to crack and while Kundra made strides, it's not something that can be fixed overnight. I really liked the concept of Apps.gov but it just hasn't taken off yet and become a robust resource to easily purchase simple solution. I look forward to seeing how it develops over time.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), issued a statement, saying Kundra's departure "is bittersweet. On the one hand, I am happy for my friend Vivek to have this new opportunity and challenge; on the other hand, his leadership over the past two years in enhancing the federal government's transparency and technology efforts has been remarkable, and he will certainly be missed."
Carper credited Kundra's efforts with saving more than $3 billion in IT-related spending. "His departure makes it all the more important that we pass the Information Technology Investment Act that I recently introduced with Senators Lieberman, Collins, and Scott Brown. The bill takes Vivek's reforms and pushes them even further to make sure we are getting the best results for taxpayers' dollars."
Steve Kelman, FCW blogger and columnist and Weatherhead professor of public policy at the Kennedy school, said Kundra’s impending arrival there is “really cool news. Now he'll have more time for Facebook. Maybe we can write a blog together."
President Barack Obama appointed Kundra to the federal CIO position in 2009.
Reporters Alyah Khan, Alice Lipowicz, Matthew Weigelt and Rutrell Yasin, and News Editor Michael Hardy, contributed to this report.
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