Transparency bites

By GovTechReview Staff
Monday, 03 December, 2012

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-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.

Not only did these represent “out of control” capital spending, but Kundra noted that average CPU utilisation in those data centres was under 27%, and storage utilisation was under 40%. Kundra compared this with an average of 79% utilisation within manufacturers and began asking questions to ascertain why it was OK for the government to be 50 percent less efficient in its use of technology resources than private-sector organisations.

“With the trajectory that we were on, we were going to be spending billions of dollars on more infrastructure because it was easier to solve problems that way,” he recalls. “The status quo encouraged people to spend millions on business process re-engineering to develop blueprints that ended up never being used; you’d be shocked at the number of times that $50m just bought you a binder of architectural drawings but nothing you could implement.”

“It’s really easy to do this in the public sector because you end up with this culture of faceless accountability,” he adds. “Everyone’s accountable, and therefore nobody’s really, really accountable for performance or results.”

Accountability delivered, the situation has improved rapidly. Reviews of IT projects have seen 12 accelerated to deliver within 8 months instead of 2 years or more, and 11 rescoped. Combined with the savings from the four terminated projects, Kundra’s initiatives have quickly delivered a $US3 billion budget reduction.

They also united the government’s IT stakeholders around a common vision that has become known as the ‘Cloud First’ policy — a philosophical commitment to shared infrastructure that has outlived the tenure of Kundra, who left the Obama administration in August 2011 for an academic fellowship at Harvard University.

Kundra has subsequently shifted to a private-sector role with, but his Federal IT Dashboard — along with the significant philosophical change he wrought — live on. Adoption of the Cloud First mentality has positioned the federal government as a role model for subordinate jurisdictions, which have begun experimenting with cloud-based initiatives of their own.

Even major organisations, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Education, have embraced functional change by working on data-sharing initiatives that made it easier for university students to apply for financial aid. Consumer-protection agencies offer information on product recalls through smartphone apps. And other initiatives are underway.

“You go to cloud services not just because it saves you money, but because you can provision services much faster,” Kundra says.

“What used to take you five years can now take under five weeks — and you can quickly figure out whether it works or not. And, yet, there is something more fundamental than that — which is what you do with the resources you free up in terms of both capital and human talent. You focus them like a laser beam on services that matter to your customers.” – David Braue

This story originally ran in the February-March 2012 issue of Government Technology Review.

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