Meet the nation’s first CIO

In a surprise announcement, President Obama has named the nation’s first federal CIO: Vivek Kundra, CTO of the District of Columbia. (He has yet to name the position he did promise he would create: the first national CTO.) So who is Kundra, and what might his appointment mean for the federal government’s direction for and spending on technology? As the federal CIO, he will oversee a US$71 billion IT budget and manage technology interoperability among agencies. Kundra told a press conference that he will investigate how the government might improve its technology investments and make more information accessible to citizens through the Internet. He’s done both as D.C.’s CTO.

The District of Columbia has been a leader in smart deployment of technology for years, boasting a succession of strong CTOs. Under Suzanne Peck’s tenure, previous to Kundra’s, D.C. was among the first to use SOA to rationalize software development efforts, to use XML to make government operational data open for mashups, and to deploy next-gen wireless technology for public safety and other agency usage. Kundra became CTO in 2006 and quickly staked out his own innovation focus.

As D.C.’s CTO, Kundra has emphazied what he calls a stock-market approach to IT project management and the adoption of consumer technologies in business. Both approaches come from the same epiphany he recalls having: The technology most users employ at work is kludgy compared to what they use in their daily routines, even though consumer technologies are often less expensive or even free. “For some weird reason I cannot understand, the way we organize ourselves at work is so much less agile than what we do in our personal lives,” Kundra told InfoWorld. “Why not use consumer technology at work?”

The IT “stock market”

As D.C.’s CTO, Kundra hired a team of analysts to track projects — in the style of a financial analyst — on a daily basis. Smaller projects get bundled into “funds” of related efforts. Pretty quickly, the successes and failures were obvious. For example, the analysts discovered that a three-year enterprise content management project had made little progress and was run by project managers who had four previous failures. “It was not going anywhere. So I decided to ‘sell’ the stock — I killed the project — and put that capital elsewhere,” Kundra recalls. In this case, he redirected the money to add mobile laptops to police cars.

The stock metaphor made sense to more business-minded leaders at the district, but Kundra admits he had to really sell the concept to most employees and the 87 agency heads served by his team. “It was an education,” he notes dryly. What really sold the concept was the result: lower cost due to fewer long-burning misfires.

The stock approach also supplanted the traditional project management mentality of creating specifications and periodically assessing progress against them subjectively. “I wanted a more data-driven model — after all, the data is the data. If you’re over budget for two or three quarters, you can’t avoid being exposed,” Kundra says. “People don’t make tough decisions easily, so you have to show them the data. [As government leaders,] it’s our duty to make sure they’re not failing,” he adds. Objective measurements make that assessment easier.

For Kundra, the stock market approach is really just a metaphor for a technique driven by ongoing analytics. “You can use a different metaphor if that works better in your industry,” he says. But essential to success is a “ruthless discipline” in your data collection, analysis, and consequent management decisions.

Freeing up resources for meaningful innovation

Kundra was not focused solely on weeding out bad “stocks.” He also used this approach to free up capital for innovative bets. For example, he’s initiated a project that combines YouTube with Wikipedia to increase government’s accountability to citizens. All requests for proposals (RFPs) for city contracts are posted on a Web site in a wiki, with all bids being available as PDF attachments. Attendee lists from public hearings are scanned and posted as well, as are videos of hearings and even RFP presentations. Also posted or linked are any district communications with the potential vendors on the RFPs. If this effort succeeds, “no one can say that there are deals done behind closed doors,” he says.

“It’s tough in tight budgets to find the innovative path,” Kundra notes, which is why he was so focused on gaining stock market-like efficiencies in weeding out wasteful projects and identifying strong ones. Thanks to the savings already established from this approach, he was able to set up an R&D lab to test new ideas.

The two areas of Kundra’s fancy are new-generation mobile devices — “I believe the iPhone is the future for integrated voice, data and video” — and Web 2.0 technologies. Thus the experiments using wikis and YouTube.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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