A National CIO
by Tony Kontzer
Related: Kundra talks about cloud computing for government functions.
President Obama promised Americans change. He also promised a greater focus on using IT to make government more efficient and accessible. With his appointment Thursday of Vivek Kundra, the 34-year-old chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, as the nation's first federal CIO, the President took a step toward delivering both.
Kundra, a whiz who's been recognized as one of the top CTOs in the country and was named Maryland's 2008 IT Executive of the Year, brings a breath of fresh air to the federal IT scene, with a penchant for embracing new technologies that can more effectively connect US citizens with their government. That's a sea change for a federal government approach to technology that has been characterized, especially under the Bush Administration, by poorly managed projects, an outdated view of IT, and a resistance to change.
Fresh air notwithstanding, make no mistake about it: Kundra's task as Federal CIO is a monumental one, as Bob Otto, former CIO and CTO of the U.S. Postal Service explained in an interview earlier this year with CIO Insight Editor Brian Watson. He'll be charged with forging a cohesive IT policy for a federal government that, to be blunt, has floundered on that front. And he'll also be asked to turn Obama's vision of a responsive, technology-savvy federal government into reality. In attempting to do so, at least we can be sure of one thing: He won't be afraid to try new things. And that may be what we need more than anything in a federal CIO.
As Washington D.C.'s CTO, Kundra posted the bidding process for city contracts on YouTube, encouraged employees to use Twitter as a workplace tool, adopted Google Apps for better collaboration among city agencies, and was working on letting drivers pay parking tickets and renew their licenses on Facebook. Even more forward-thinking was his well-publicized Apps for Democracy contest, in which citizens vied for prize money by designing applications that would enable data such as crime reports and pothole repair schedules to be accessed via mobile devices. This is a federal CIO for a new generation of Americans, a generation that's using technology to connect with the world around them, and that will expect its government to do the same.
That's not to say, however, that Kundra won't run a tight ship. In a recent profile in the Washington Post, Kundra, who was born in New Delhi, India, and spent much of his childhood in Tanzania, shared that when he first moved to the U.S., he was shocked that people could afford to feed their dogs. That kind of perspective, which can only come from growing up around abject poverty, would seem to be a nice fit with Obama's goal of "lowering the cost of government operations," as stated in the White House's announcement of Kundra's hiring. Clearly, someone who's accustomed to seeing people make due with nothing isn't likely to be tolerant of wasteful spending.
Does that mean that Kundra's arrival will bring an end to over-budget, unfocused federal IT projects? Not likely. The guy's not Superman. But he clearly has a sense for what works, and what doesn't work. Check out this YouTube video in which he describes how Google Earth succeeded where government had failed.
All signs point to Kundra being the right choice for the federal CIO post. He accentuates the youthful energy that is a calling card of the Obama Administration. He envisions a government that doesn't just provide IT-enabled services to its citizens, but asks them to participate in its creation. And perhaps best of all, he loves to watch reruns of Three's Company. Okay, so maybe that's not so important, but anyone who's willing to admit that clearly exists in a spirit of openness, and that's a good start.
Related: Vint Cerf on the opportunities and hazards of federal tech policy.