Is federal CIO Vivek Kundra a star or a sham?
Most of the coverage of Kundra's first six months in office is positive, bordering on fawning. Somewhat typical is MercuryNews.com writer Chris O'Brien, who opines Kundra is leading a "remarkable reinvention effort" that may improve the public's collective view of the government. In his first six months, Kundra has introduced Data.gov, which opens up access to a collection of raw government data from cancer incidence to ozone concentration, and a federal IT Dashboard to track government spending on IT projects.
In a kind of piece de resistance, Kundra last week announced his intent to begin migrating some government software applications to the cloud , with the goal of eventually eliminating some of the government's tech infrastructure. Though this is paradigm shift for many private-sector companies, it's an even bigger one for government agencies, as Chris Dixon, a senior analyst for Insight, told me when I spoke with him in 2007. That's because internal politics are no match for, well, actual politics. He was speaking specifically about state government, but I think his insights apply just as well in the federal realm. He said:
But I think the culture in state government has been, "If we buy it, we have to have something to show for it when the legislature comes asking what we've done." You can point to a server rack or a data center, be able to point to assets you own. Even if it doesn't do what you want it to do, you can say, "We own it. We can show something for it." To raise SaaS on the radar screen, vendors will want to ensure that agencies understand they are really looking to buy improved outcomes in terms of productivity or efficiency, outcomes they could point to in terms of a justification of the expense.
As O'Brien notes, Kundra is shaking up the usual way government projects get done by utilizing methods popular in Silicon Valley, notably an agile software development model. Also, he says, Kundra is raising the profile of government CIOs, who have typically served largely as procurement officers and whose role has been downplayed at public agencies in recent years. Writes O'Brien:
So now these CIOs are tackling projects designed to simplify things like filling out student financial aid forms. The complex documents can run for dozens of pages requiring extensive financial information. Now these forms are being linked to IRS databases to allow people to import their tax information, saving countless hours of frustrating copying time. Over at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the CIO is addressing the enormous backlog of applications from returning service people by automating the enrollment process for those discharged from the military.
Forget health care. If Kundra succeeds and "makes government actually work as efficiently as we wish it would," it might be one of Obama's most lasting legacies.
Yet not everyone is a Kundra fan. Last month on his Dvorak Uncensored blog, PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak questioned Kundra's academic credentials (those claims were debunked), dissed his professional qualifications and his general lack of technical experience. It apparently bugs Dvorak that Kundra headed up his own one-man company. Is there something inherently skeevy about that? I'd say it shows the kind of initiative that also helped make Kundra a success (by most accounts, at least ) as Washington, D.C.'s CTO , not to mention rolling out a couple of significant projects in his first few months on the job as federal CIO.
Kundra "simply did not sound like someone who studied computers or technology" in comments aired on CSPAN, writes Dvorak:
His common referrals to Twitter and Google Docs as some sort of high-tech breakthroughs and a way to save money and empower the public stemmed from pure cornball pop culture and the blogosphere, not from computer science or Information technology.
Is it a bad thing to "not sound like someone who studied computers or technology?" Perhaps Kundra was only trying to put technology in terms that members of Congress could understand. Private-sector CIOs are often knocked for using geekspeak, rather than discussing technology's impact on business in terms that business executives can understand. Some observers think general management skills are more important for CIOs -- or at least as important -- as a heavy-duty tech background.
I also find it interesting that Dvorak dwells so much on background, in light of his own. No disrespect intended, he's a fine writer. He's made a nice living sounding like he hails from a technology background -- and yet he doesn't. According to Wikipedia (and yeah, I know Wikipedia is not always accurate), he has a degree in history from University of California, Berkeley and "started his career as a wine writer."
Also, while they may not be "high-tech breakthroughs," social media and cloud computing are both making real waves at large corporations across America. It may be too soon to say how lasting their impact will be, but to imply that they are passing fads popular only in the blogosphere, as Dvorak does, is just wrong. Government agencies are already experiencing some success with social media.
While Dvorak makes a legitimate point about the possibly overblown $18 million cost of the Recovery.gov Web site, his biggest problems with Kundra seem to be that he's too charismatic (a criticism often leveled at President Obama) and doesn't fit the mold of previous public agency CIOs. IT Business Edge's Rob Enderle made a similar point when Kundra was first appointed. (Though in a far less overheated way than Dvorak does.) Kundra is "going to be pissing off a lot of very powerful people over a very short period of time," wrote Enderle.
While cloud computing should be less expensive and more transparent than traditional client-based computing, it makes it harder to level blame when something goes wrong (hearkening back to Dixon's point from our interview) and just may not be reliable or secure enough for government use, said Enderle. Similar deal with using packaged software (another Kundra idea) vs. custom applications, he wrote:
When packaged software fails, the blame goes to the packaged software vendor and the poor sap who selected it. Given that government is more about blame than credit, this makes for an economically sound, but potentially catastrophic, career choice.
Kundra "doesn't really understand the federal bureaucracy yet," wrote Enderle. But really, is that such a bad thing?