Obama CIO: Government Can Lead in IT

WASHINGTON — The federal government isn’t known as the vanguard of IT innovation, but don’t tell that to Vivek Kundra.

Here at the FOSE conference, an annual trade show for government IT employees, the newly appointed federal CIO gave one of his first public addresses since being tapped for the job, a new position that President Obama created to oversee the government’s entire technology portfolio.

Kundra, who most recently served as the CTO of Washington, D.C., gave an exuberant address this morning, vowing to reignite a culture of innovation in the federal IT community.

“Everywhere I look, people talk about how the private sector’s ahead of the federal government, and that the federal government can’t lead,” Kundra said. “I reject that idea. The federal government can lead, and has led.”

Yet Kundra may be facing his first challenge just days into the job.

His talk today came amid reports that the FBI had raided his former office as Washington’s CTO, arresting two in a corruption probe. However, Kundra is not a target of the investigation, a spokeswoman for Washington’s mayor told Reuters.

It’s unclear how the event may impact Kundra as he works to not just manage federal IT strategy, but to overturn the notion that government usually lags far behind the private sector when it comes to technology.

Here at FOSE, Kundra noted some of ways government had taken a leadership role with IT in the past, pointing to the human genome project and the work of DARPA, the research agency in the Defense Department that was central to the early development of the Internet in the early 1970s.

As he reevaluates the government’s sprawling IT operations, Kundra hopes to bring the government more in line with the private sector, lowering costs and hacking through the cumbersome procurement process.

“We’re asking a very simple question, which is in your personal life, as a consumer, if you can go out there and buy technology for one tenth of the cost of what the federal government paid, why is that? What makes the federal government so special that it can’t embrace some of these technologies?”

Kundra said he is forming a working group in his organization to explore the technologies that have been sweeping over the private sector, particularly cloud computing and free consumer-facing services.

“Instead of being a laggard in terms of adopting some of these innovations, we want to get ahead,” he said.

Unlike the private sector, government IT is hamstrung by a slow and often arcane procurement process. With funding sometimes arriving two years after the initial request, Kundra pointed out that the government can miss out on a complete cycle of Moore’s Law, resulting in technology that is obsolete before it even arrives.

[cob:Special_Report]Picking up on Obama’s themes of openness and citizen engagement, Kundra pledged to make government information more accessible through the Web. Just as the administration has touted sites like the new WhiteHouse.gov and Recovery.gov, Kundra said he plans to cull through the data silos across the various agencies in an effort to make information more widely available.

“We’re going to be publishing government data beginning with the default assumption that data should belong to the people,” he said. “If you look at happened when data has been democratized, has been put in the public domain, you have an explosion of innovation.”

He added, “Imagine the vast repository of rich data and information that the federal government has, and what people could do if they could have access to that information.

Beyond the bureaucratic trench warfare required for things like procurement reform and posting government data on the Web, Kundra sees his mission as reforming the culture of the government IT apparatus.

“Some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life are federal government employees,” he said. “What’s happened is over the years, unfortunately, they’ve been restrained. They’ve been taught that the best way to survive is not to take any risks, and they haven’t been liberated in terms of testing they’re ideas and making sure that they embrace innovation on a day-to-day basis.”

Admitting that it will be a slow ship to turn, Kundra vowed to rehabilitate that culture.

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