White House’s New CIO Talks Ending IT Waste

BALTIMORE — When officials from the Obama administration talk about their plans for technology in government, it must sound a little like the presentations IT consultants across America make to the techno-challenged companies they’ve been hired to rehabilitate. They are at once inspired by the possibilities of what technology can help the organization achieve, and aghast at the ineptitude with which it has been implemented.

Here at a conference hosted by the National Association of State CIOs, newly minted White House CIO Vivek Kundra tried to strike a diplomatic balance between the two, gently chiding the waste that has attended federal IT procurements in the past.

“Unfortunately some of those investments haven’t paid dividends. Some of those investments have gone south, and the government has not done a good job historically of defining requirements clearly so that the private sector could make proper bids,” he said.

But the blame goes both ways, Kundra was quick to point out. “The private sector, unfortunately, sometimes have overpromised the potential of emerging technologies.”

Stepping into the new position of White House CIO, Kundra will be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day IT operations of the agencies, working to cut costs, drive transparency and shore up cybersecurity. To do more with less, in essence.

At a time when the new administration is talking so loudly about engaging citizens through a transparent, collaborative e-government regime in the fashion of Web 2.0 in the consumer world, a major part of Kundra’s job will be to reform the culture of the government IT apparatus.

When pitching the idea of a consumer-facing blog for the much-maligned Transportation Security Administration, the agency’s communications director was told that launching the project would cost around $600,000. To do something as simple as launch a blog, that price tag seemed exorbitant, but the communications department learned that the project would require extensive testing of the security protocols and other bureaucratic hurdles all too common to IT initiatives in the federal government, Kundra said.

The agency got around that budgetary roadblock by hopping online, finding a free blogging service (Google’s Blogger) and opening what many have hailed as a vibrant communications channel between the TSA and the often-frustrated travelers it serves. TSA got its blog, paying $600,000 less than the original price it was quoted.

“The default position has been for far too long to continue with what the public sector, the federal agencies have now, and solutions that cost too much,” Kundra said. “So what we need to do is how do find the innovative path, not in something as small as a blog, but in some of these larger investments that we make.”

In the past, Kundra has talked of the government as having been left behind the wave of innovative, free technologies — Webmail, social sites, remotely hosted videos, etc. — that have transformed the way consumers use the Web.

The same goes for cloud computing. Kundra hinted that the administration could be gearing up for a major initiative to move government data to a cloud-based environment. For all the cost savings it would bring, moving government to the cloud would be an uphill climb, fraught with security and privacy concerns and the jurisdictional complexities that arise when data is hosted remotely.

“Cloud computing is not the magic bullet,” Kundra said. “But what we need to recognize is there’s a tectonic shift in technology,” describing the onset of the cloud as a change comparable to “the birth of the Internet.”

Kundra acknowledged that the cloud would not be appropriate for classified or highly sensitive data, but as the steward of vast troves of publicly available information, the government could enjoy considerable savings by following industry’s lead and moving away from the traditional server-client datacenter model.

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