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First federal CIO launched far-reaching changes, experts say

Vivek Kundra, who leaves his post today as the nation's first chief information officer, deserves credit for pushing a grand and comprehensive vision for using information technology more efficiently, for making government more transparent, and for beginning the process of moving a large share of federal computing to the cloud, experts told Nextgov this week.

He also deserves recognition for defining the CIO's role itself. He took what might have been a little-noticed backwater in the Office of Management and Budget and turned it into a bully pulpit for an efficient, centralized and open government approach to information technology, observers said.

"Vivek was very good at laying out four clear goals and pushing, pushing, pushing," said Michael Nelson, an Internet consultant with Leading Edge Forum and a former visiting professor of Internet studies at Georgetown University. "Having a CIO at meetings and talking at conferences, waving the flag and saying the Obama administration understands the power of technology and it's pushing it forward, that's incredibly important."

Prior to Kundra's appointment, OMB's administrator of electronic government was tasked with overseeing pan-agency IT initiatives, but had limited power to force major changes in the way IT was built, bought and rolled out on a governmentwide basis.

"Government technology procurement had been very decentralized," said Darrell West, founding director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation. "What had been lacking was someone to look across the departments and think about more general trends and practices . . . I think [Kundra's] legacy will be bringing more rationality to what had been a very chaotic system."

Kundra is leaving government to take a fellowship at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and at the university's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

His successor, former IBM executive and Federal Communications Commission Managing Director Steven VanRoekel, has said he plans to focus on carrying Kundra's work to its conclusion rather than on launching more initiatives and analysts have not predicted major changes at the CIO's office.

Kundra made the CIO's position a public one, appearing at conferences, seminars, congressional hearings and White House webcasts, sometimes several of them a week. At first he would lay out the magnitude of the problems he faced in stark terms -- a procurement process that routinely delivered projects years past date and, in one memorable case, $1 billion over budget; legacy data centers that operated at less than a third of their capacity and wasted immense amounts of energy; and a culture that prized process and stability over innovation.

As he approached the end of his roughly 30 months in office, though, Kundra focused more on accomplishments: 373 federal data centers slated for closure by the end of 2012 and 400 more teed up to be shuttered by 2015; an estimated $3 billion saved by ramping up oversight of IT projects; and a plan to shift one quarter of the government's IT budget to cloud computing by 2015.

Kundra's most lasting legacy, West and Nelson agreed, will be the cloud transition, which officials estimate will save $5 billion annually and fundamentally change the way government manages and budgets for IT.

"The cloud is as important as the Web was and it's at about the same state now that the Web was in 1995," said Nelson, who co-authored a report on cloud deployment for the government by the industry group TechAmerica.

Computer clouds are essentially large server banks that pack data more efficiently than traditional data centers. Users deal with storage and services much like they do electricity or water, paying only for what they use. In addition to lowering the overall cost of IT, cloud data storage frees agencies from having to budget for unpredictable infrastructure repairs and from devoting staff time to data center maintenance.

Surveys by industry groups have shown lower-level federal IT managers are more skeptical of the cloud transition than Kundra. The outgoing CIO has ascribed that pessimism to a simple "fear of change" and West and Nelson said much the same thing.

Another element of Kundra's legacy will be his push for transparency in government, including the Federal IT Dashboard, which compares spending to date with spending budgeted and deadlines met with deadlines missed on every government IT project.

"It's one thing to talk about spending at an agency level," said Gavin Baker, a federal information policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government transparency watchdog. "It's another thing to talk about spending at the level of individual investments. That's what you've got to have if you want to improve how things are managed. . . The IT Dashboard really takes transparency and accountability to a more detailed level than had ever been done before."

What Kundra put on the IT Dashboard was public information, but previously it had been buried in a hundred different places, and usually required a lengthy Freedom of Information Act process to root it out. By forcing the information out into the public, Kundra effectively enlisted the public's help in changing federal IT culture and elevated the push for new governmentwide efficiencies to a higher level of visibility.

"I think that even though [the next president] could possibly roll back a lot of these [transparency] initiatives, it would be hard to do that because the Obama administration has changed the public's expectations in a pretty fundamental way," Baker said. "People really expect a lot more in terms of open government now and it will be very hard for any future administration to backpedal on that."

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