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It may have only lasted 29 months, but Vivek Kundra’s stint as the first CIO of the United States fundamentally changed a project-management culture in which billions were being thrown away on projects with little order and no accountability.
Ask Vivek Kundra when his mission to change the US government finally gained some steam, and he can pinpoint the moment: it came when his office posted a picture of US president Barack Obama looking at the new Federal IT Dashboard that, under Kundra’s mandate, had been established to name and shame departments that had let projects run over time and over budget.
Knowing that their inefficiency had been put front and centre in front of no less than Obama spurred previously disinterested government CIOs to immediate action.
“That one picture had a huge impact,” Kundra recalls. “One agency halted 45 IT projects and terminated four of them — just because the picture had come out. It didn’t take any intervention from me; it’s just the power of transparency.”
Transparency has never been a strong point of the US government technology machine, which guzzles through $US80 billion on IT projects every year and maintains over 12,000 major IT systems worldwide. Kundra — who previously served as chief technology officer for the District of Columbia and joined the new administration in 2008 as part of a ‘tiger team’ focused on technology, innovation and government reform — responded to Obama’s call for help build a 21st-century government.
“I had the opportunity to dream really big, and to think about how we could hit the reset switch and embark on a technology revolution in the public sector,” he said during a recent whistlestop tour through Australia. “I remember many long, coffee-fuelled nights thinking about how you could change an organisation as large as the US government.”
In his previous role, Kundra had made a tilt at transparency by creating the D.C. Data Catalog — a directory of more than 300 data sets held by agencies across the capital-city jurisdiction, which was offered to the public through the innovative Apps for Democracy developer contest. This initiative was replicated at the federal level when Kundra, as government CIO, launched the Data.gov data-sharing repository.
Extending his philosophy of transparency at the federal level, however, was another thing altogether. The scope of his task became clear when Kundra sat down at his desk as the country’s newly appointed first CIO.
“My team congratulated me, then handed me a stack of documents and said ‘here are over $20 billion worth of IT projects that are years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget’,” he recalls.
Given the significant entrenched inertia within the government, Kundra knew he couldn’t change the establishment through sheer force of will; he needed something more powerful on his side. And that thing, he soon realised, was the truth.
Shining a light on long-hidden bushels is never easy: Kundra recalls the gasps as he told a Senate committee that he was going to chase up stragglers by launching an IT dashboard within 60 days that featured the status of overdue projects and photos of each government CIO responsible for them.
“I became public enemy #1,” he recalls, “because I took a picture of every CIO, and the names of every private-sector company working on a government IT project, and made them completely public so the American people could comment on how their tax dollars were being spent. That fundamental shift was part of what I wanted to do in terms of restoring the trust between our government and its people.”
The dashboard went live within 60 days — itself an achievement since “nothing in the Federal government happens in 60 days,” he laughs — and quickly highlighted the glaring problems within the government’s IT infrastructure. Over $US27 billion in projects were in the red, and the number of government data centres had grown from 432 to 2094 over the preceding decade.