Was Kundra Burned Out by Bureaucracy?


During my vacation last week, I (mostly) resisted the temptation to check email or even many of my usual news outlets. So I missed the announcement of federal CIO Vivek Kundra's resignation on Thursday. Like many others in the technology press, I've followed Kundra's efforts to improve federal IT with interest.


When Kundra exits in August for a position at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, he'll have spent two-and-a-half years on the job, which is more than many folks thought he would last. IT Business Edge contributor Rob Enderle in 2009 called Kundra "a fascinating but likely short-lived choice" for the federal CIO job. In his post, Enderle made the point that Kundra ruffled lots of feathers by making a big deal of his aggressive plans to make some very fundamental changes in the way government agencies approached IT. Rob wrote:

I think what Vivek Kundra as the new CIO is going to try to do is important and that he will have a positive impact. But coming out this soon with an aggressive product statement suggests he doesn't really understand the federal bureaucracy yet and that learning on the job will be a good lesson for us, but an expensive one for him. I think he will have a significant impact and may in fact boot the U.S. government closer to this decade in terms of technology. But I doubt he'll survive the effort. Learning how to do the former without incurring the latter is what we may also be able to learn with him as our proxy.

Kundra has undeniably made some progress in bringing government IT into the current decade, as can be seen from this InformationWeek story that details some promising achievements, including the creation of an IT project management job track, the closure of several data centers, the development of concrete plans to move some services in some agencies to the cloud, and the cancellation of some costly projects and revamping of others following TechStat reviews.


An entry in the NASA CIO blog describes some of NASA's successes, including the closure of 13 data centers, a cloud deployment that provides centralized services to several agencies and a TechStat review that resulted in requirements to develop performance metrics and consolidate applications and a renewed focus on lifecycle costs and customer usability.


Still, the pace of change was probably not fast enough for someone with Kundra's stated ambitions. Several of Kundra's favorite initiatives were either scrapped or severely scaled back as part of sweeping budget cuts. And Kundra couldn't seem to do much about promoting strong executive sponsorship, a key ingredient for IT transformation, at many government agencies. An opinion piece written by InformationWeek Government editor John Foley just before Kundra's resignation was announced discusses the problem, concluding: "Agency CIOs can get the job done, but only if their bosses have their backs."


Foley's piece mentions two agencies, the FBI and Department of Veterans Affairs, where CIOs in recent months have worked closely with agency officials to effect change. Perhaps not coincidentally, Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker is among those considered to be potential replacements for Kundra.


The big question, of course, is whether Kundra's successor will be able to execute on some of Kundra's good ideas, including TechStat reviews and the Office of Management and Budget's 25-point plan for improving federal IT project success, so they become routine and accepted practices at government agencies. Writing for Federal Computer Week, Steve Kalman suggests that a commitment to these ideas should be part of the vetting process for the new federal CIO. I agree.