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Former federal CIO presses for social government

This story has been updated.

Former federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, once the greatest proponent of cloud technology in government, has declared victory and moved on.

As the information technology vendor Salesforce.com's new executive vice president for emerging markets, Kundra said he's now focused instead on the way social media and social technologies can make governments and industry more efficient, transparent and collaborative.

"Cloud is an old, tired debate," Kundra told Nextgov in an interview Thursday. "It's sort of done. Everyone's moving in that direction. It's a one-way street. The more interesting question is: So now you've abstracted your core infrastructure -- let's say you're in the cloud -- what is the real transformation point? It's not technology for technology's sake. And that's where the social revolution comes in."

Kundra envisions a world where national, state and local governments will post computer code for custom-built applications to do everything from mapping potholes to processing health care data in a collaborative site similar to Salesforce's AppExchange. Technology officials in Chicago can then grab a pothole mapping app from San Francisco, New York or even New Delhi and retrofit it for their own needs without investing in a proprietary system.

The federal government has made early strides in that kind of exchange by posting open source code for its data transparency hub Data.gov and its technology-project-tracking IT Dashboard site, he said, but it is a long way from a true apps exchange.

The next social layer comes in when citizens or customers begin interacting with government applications.

When Kundra was chief technology officer for Washington, for instance, his office built a system that showed where every snowplow was in the city and whether it was plowing or not.

"Imagine if you could combine that with a social graph and you could see citizens saying, 'Look at the snow here' and 'You missed my street,' " he said, "so you could match demand with supply rather than doing it in an opaque or secret way."

Similarly, Kundra said, federal and state agencies could collect Yelp-like feedback from citizens to better inform how they hand out grant dollars to hospitals and nonprofits.

When the federal or state governments do need to build large, proprietary systems, he said, they can collect similar informal reviews from the agency staff implementing the systems to spot performance failures earlier and disconnects between the agency's vision and the contractor's.

Kundra's sense that the argument for cloud computing has been won in government extends beyond the United States. In a New York Times column shortly after he left office, he argued in favor of a "global cloud-first policy."

During a recent visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Kundra said, technology leaders from across the world told him they were committed to the cloud.

"The majority of the discussion wasn't about do you or don't you move to the cloud," he said. "It was almost accepted that's where we're moving."

Kundra criticized what he called an "IT cartel" during his last months in office," a cadre of major vendors he said pushed the government into proprietary systems that often didn't work as intended and couldn't be easily revised or updated. He sees that cartel breaking down, he said, not because of pressure from the top but because federal employees and Congress are aware of the power of commercial technology and increasingly expect government to use those commercial systems or proprietary systems that function as well.

Kundra steered clear of specific federal IT issues, but said he thinks his successor Steven VanRoekel is doing a good job.

Kundra told White House officials early on that he would not remain CIO for an entire term, but would commit himself fully while he was in office. He described his White House days as "getting in at 4:30 in the morning and leaving at 10 p.m. every day except Saturdays."

Upon leaving the White House in August 2011 to take a fellowship at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Kundra "went through a long period of soul searching," he said.

"I looked at a number of different options," Kundra said, "and I couldn't think of a space that is more exciting. You look at 7 billion people [on the planet] and 5 billion mobile devices. You look at the social revolution that's happening, whether it's the Arab spring or Netflix. I said, 'Wow that is the future.' And enterprises are just not ready. It's not just the public sector. It's also the private sector trying to figure out what does the social world really mean and how do we make sure we transform ourselves for the social era."

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