Ex-U.S. CIO warns governments to deliver better

Public servants have to think about leveraging technology to make it easier to serve citizens rather than shelling out money to prop up inefficient programs, the former U.S. chief information officer has told a meeting of IT officials.  

“The hard thing to do is be obsessed with the customer experience. That wasn’t happening in the U.S. government, and for that matter it isn’t happening in most governments around the world,” Vivek Kundra told a Toronto meeting of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) on Tuesday. ITAC represents IT vendors and solution providers.

Unfortunately, he added, around the world the experience of most people have when dealing with governments is “horrific.”

Kundra, now executive vice-president of emerging markets at Salesforce.com, was federal CIO for two years, during which he gained a reputation for upturning conventional thinking in the bureaucracy. That included closing many data centres, bringing in open data projects and creating an online dashboard that publicly showed the lack of progress in federal IT projects. 

In Canada the federal government released an open government plan last month, building on a number of initiatives including an open data plan.

Few in government ask “how do we architect our systems around our customers,” he complained.

In deciding how to deliver service governments need to ask what the end user feels: For example, what is the experience of a single mother who lost her job and applies for unemployment insurance, or a high school graduate applying for student aid, he said.

Before becoming U.S. CIO Kundra had extensive experience in government, including stints as director of infrastructure technology for a county in Virginia, assistant secretary of commerce and technology for the state of Virginia and chief technology officer for Washington, D.C.

In November, 2008 he got his first whiff of things at the federal level when he was named a member of President Barak Obama’s transition team.

He was named federal CIO in the spring of 2009 and stayed until last August, when he left for Harvard.

As a member of the Obama transition team, Kundra and others cast a jaundiced eye on the $80 billion a year the federal government was spending on IT with sometimes ineffectual results – including an ERP project that had stalled after 10 years. Some US$27 billon in IT projects were either over budget or behind schedule (or both).

Among his first acts as CIO was to stop all ERP projects until they could be evaluated.

Another was to promise Congress to set up an online listing of all federal IT projects and their status (called the IT Dashboard) along with photos of the federal department CIOs overseeing them and the heads of the IT vendors supplying products – and a place where citizens could leave comments.

“The impact of that was one that within days one of the agencies halted 45 projects, and terminated four of them.”

Kundra also pushed departments to get rid of systems and adopt cloud computing alternatives where appropriate.

In his speech he urged governments around the world to look at their citizens not as subjects but as co-creators of democracy. They should see publishing government-held data online as a way to fuel job creation — opening the way for software developers to create new apps, for example.

Governments have to realize that with the Internet and social media power has shifted into the hands of citizens, he said. Through such tools they are demanding better service from governments and businesses, he said.

“That is why for governments around the world it is so critical to change from being closed, secretive and opaque to be open, transparent and participatory”