Can public sector CIOs be innovative and leaders? Interview with Vivek Kundra, Fed CIO

Can public sector CIOs be innovative and leaders? Interview with Vivek Kundra, Fed CIO

Editors Note: Innovation and technology leadership is a big question facing all CIOs not only in the public sector, but the private sector as well, especially in this time of flat to shrinking budgets, furloughs, and increased demands for transparency and accountability. This week I attended the Gartner Symposium IT/xpo 2009 at which the Federal CIO, Vikek Kunda addressed the role of the CIO in the public sector and provided many examples of how government IT leaders can be more responsive and innovative by utilizing technology and improved procurement processes to be more proactive and provide better and more data available to their stakeholders and the public. This is part one of a multi-part interview that is edited in which Gartner analysts, Tina Nunno and Andrea Di Maio interviewed CIO, Kundra on a wide scope of government IT projects to reduce costs, time of deployment, reduce IT failures and provide more transparency for their IT projects. Thanks for listening! Mike Klein, Editorial Director, WTN News.
Tina Nunno: Being a CIO nowadays is certainly not easier than it’s been before. Federal CIOs in particular live in a glass box where everything that you do is under more scrutiny than ever before. However, the glass box is creating opportunities, for both, federal CIOs, as well as for the commercial space. Opportunities to get into the box together and find the opportunities to innovate and create commercial opportunities that will support the economy. We’re not completely sure where we’re going, sometimes the glass box is a little dark, but wherever we’re headed, we’re pretty sure, it’s going to be interesting.
Andrea Di Maio: These are very interesting times to be a CIO, especially in the United States. I get loads of questions from clients all over the world about some of the key initiatives that the President has started upon IT. Here are some examples. What people call government right now, open government, transparence government. Our research shows it has any incredible potential, much more than many actually believe. If you take another one like cloud computing, cloud computing has the potential to reduce the cost of managing IT, but also and perhaps primarily, to decrease the management focus on IT. If you take Gov 2.0, there are lots of questions about security, about accountability, about privacy. If you go to the cloud computing, whereas it can the use of IT more transparent, because it relates, the price, the cost to actual usage, it also creates critical dependencies and locking with events.

Vivek Kundra interviewed by Gartner Analysts

Vivek Kundra One of the biggest challenges facing government today is that for far too long, people have believed that the public sector cannot be a leader, that the public sector cannot innovate, and this self image has lead to an environment where we’re lagging behind when it comes to information technology across the public sector. So the approach we’re applying in the Obama administration is very focused around agile development, the same way you would think about software, is applying that to initiatives and projects. If we step back and look at some of the things that we have launched from the IT dashboard to to what we’re doing with, the way we’re able to successfully launch those initiatives was to be very, very focused in execution and understand that the federal government does not have a monopoly on the best ideas. So we’ve started small and we’re scaling fast, and the beauty of doing it that way is that we’re a beneficiary of a lot of inputs from the American people, from the private sector, and also the NGO community in terms of scaling these initiatives.
Andrea Di Maio: Most of the initiatives that you are driving now, as the CIO of the United States are of innovative nature, and actually the role of a CIO is also allowed continuity of operation, running the business. So what would your advice be in terms of how the role of the CIO should evolve perhaps in general, not just your role, the role of CIO in terms of striking the bars between the vision and the execution or the innovation and the continuity of the operation?
Vivek Kundra: Well, so if we look at the role of the CIO itself, in the tech industry specifically, one of the things that’s happened is that people have assumed that CIOs have existed since the founding of this nation, and the reality is that if you really think about it in a mainstream way, the role of the CIO is approximately 40 plus years old, but in its current constitution, you’re looking at about 15 years or so, where there has been significant investment. And even in the private sector it’s a recent phenomenon that the CIOs have had a seat or moving towards having a seat in the boardroom. Unfortunately in the public sector, one of the things that’s happened, is that CIOs have had a self-image and their business leader within the public sector has pushed CIOs in roles where they look at themselves as operators of datacenters and networks and procurers of applications.
And what we’re trying to do in this administration is make sure that we lift up the role of the CIOs to focus on the problems and the issues that confront this country. How do CIOs play a significant role in shaping the 21st century when it comes to healthcare? How do the CIOs play a role when it comes to public education? How do the CIOs play a role when we’re talking about the digital divide? Yet, if you look at federal agencies, what’s happening is, most of the focus of majority energy is actually spent on the operations of this infrastructure. So I don’t think that it’s a binary answer in terms of does the CIO spend pure energy on operations or on innovation, I think its striking the appropriate balance and making sure that the way we invest information technology lifts us up, so that we can actually focus on problems that confront this country.
Andrea Di Maio: Do we still need for more innovation at this public sector?

Vivek Kundra

Vivek Kundra: And the way we move towards more innovation is by abstracting the complexities of IT infrastructure. I’ve talked, and learnt about this. In 1998, the United States government had 438 datacenters. I just recently did a survey and we have over 932 datacenters today. And what’s happening is we continue to invest in the same old infrastructure and we’re borrowing capital where it may not be the most affective or efficient way and what we need to do is lift up both the capital and our focus to address the problems that we face.
Tina Nunno: One of your main priorities has been to elevate the role of the federal CIO, what do you see as the key obstacles in the way of that happening and what would you like to see happen, to actually remove those obstacles and enables CIOs to be even more strategic?
Vivek Kundra: Sure. The main obstacles is again, a deep search within the souls of CIOs which is communicating with the appropriate folks and the federal government, if conversation of CIOs are having the cabinet secretaries, is purely focused on information security, it’s purely focused on datacenters, servers and virtualization. Well, it doesn’t necessarily bring to the seat where you’re talking about how do you go out there and make the appropriate investments to solve problems that are customers based
An example is that the IRS and the Department of Education where the technologists were very much focused on talking about what they couldn’t do. Where the IRS could not share and did not want to share data with the Department of Education and the decision was made that they will never move forward in terms of simplifying the student aid application. Today it’s more difficult to fill out a student aid application than to fill out a 1040 Form. And one of the reasons is, because the IRS does not share data with the Department of Education, but bring the two bodies together, the two groups together, what they came up with was a simple innovation which was that the IRS will share data with the applicant directly, the applicant will like a single button, they will automatically fill out the student aid form in the Department of Education, saving over 70 questions and 20 screens. And that’s where we need to start shifting the CIOs attention to.