Federal CIO plots path to transparency

Vivek Kundra says the power of technology can transform government.

Since his appointment in March as federal chief information officer, Vivek Kundra has had a full plate. Also the e-government administrator at the Office of Management and Budget, Kundra has taken on the formidable task of increasing the transparency of government data and oversight of information technology investments. In addition, he's faced personal scrutiny when the FBI launched an investigation into bribery charges at his former office with the District of Columbia government, where he was chief technology officer. Nextgov spoke with Kundra on Wednesday about the challenges of his new position and what he hopes to accomplish in this administration's era of open government. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Nextgov: It's been quite an eventful few months for you. What has it been like?

Kundra: It's been fun. It's exciting to be part of the administration and to be around people who get technology and know the power of technology to transform the government and drive innovation.

Nextgov: A senior administration official recently revealed that Data.gov will be live by the end of this week. Can you tell us about the site and how the data will be presented?

Kundra: We recognize the power of tapping into the ingenuity of the American people and recognize that government doesn't have a monopoly on the best ideas or always have the best idea on finding an innovative path to solving the toughest problems the country faces. By democratizing data and making it available to the public and private sector ... we can tap into that ingenuity.

Data on Data.gov will be available in multiple machine-readable formats, including XML, that will allow people to slice, dice and cube data sets. [Users can] visualize information, create applications and find value at the intersection of multiple data sets.

Nextgov: What was your response to the FBI investigation at your old office with the District of Columbia government and to being put on leave and then reinstated within a matter of days?

Kundra: Mayor Adrian Fenty and I have been very committed to transparency and open government. [The platform] the mayor ran on talked about making sure that the government was open and transparent. That means ensuring we uncover things people may not want to see, but is in the interest of district residents. When you move forward with transparency, you find things you may not otherwise, but it's good to find them early rather than later.

Nextgov: A recent bill from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., aims to increase oversight of IT investments to cut back on waste and cost and schedule overruns. What is your view of this issue?

Kundra: If you step back for context: On Oct. 12, 1994, Sen. William Cohen wrote a report calling it "computer chaos"-- the report was titled "Billions Wasted in Buying Federal Computer Systems." Here we are in 2009 having a similar conversation around the billions invested in IT. Why aren't those investments producing the dividends that should be expected? We've been working closely with Carper's staff on the bill itself, since we have a common interest: making sure taxpayer dollars are spent well and the technology we're investing in actually produces results and creates the outcomes we set out for.

The root causes are fundamental issues in IT procurement and deployment. We need to recognize the government's needs. How can technology enable solutions that can drive business outcomes? We need to fundamentally restructure the way we do work. Technology cuts across departments, moves us in a direction that requires fundamental structural change.

We need to start changing the way we measure IT projects -- not on an annual basis. It's similar to the security posture; you can't wait one year and get a report to see if you're secure or not. I guarantee by the time you finish writing the report, you would have probably been attacked hundreds of thousands of times. We need to change the way we manage IT by changing the frequency of when we evaluate where we are.

Moore's Law states that processing speeds double every 18 months. But the average procurement takes 12 to 18 months. We're working closely with our OMB counterparts in terms of procurement transformation to allow us to introduce newer technologies and solutions more quickly.

Nextgov: Most experts in this space agree that many of the issues related to IT procurements stem from the lack of qualified program managers and acquisition professionals. Given the existence of these gaps in the federal acquisition workforce, how do you plan to replenish the government's talent pool?

Kundra: I would agree with the assessment that one of the biggest problems is making sure we do have [acquisition professionals] that understand what the government is receiving, the project plans and the commitments being made. And we absolutely need procurement reform, as the president has said repeatedly.

But I would argue it's a universal problem, it's the same at the state and local levels when it comes to procuring IT, except the scale is much larger here. In terms of what we're doing, the CIO Council is doing a workforce IT assessment, and we're making sure we've got the opportunity to attract some of the best and brightest minds. We believe there's opportunity with some of the vacancies out there.

We also already have a lot of good, solid people in the federal workforce; we need to look at what's getting in the way of them being aggressive in IT management. We must ensure we have a platform to see as real-time as possible what projects are going south. We want to look at leading indicators versus lagging indicators.

Nextgov: What can you tell us about the recent 60-day review of cybersecurity performed by Melissa Hathaway (senior director for cyberspace for the National Security and Homeland Security councils)?

Kundra: We haven't done as good a job on cybersecurity as the American people should expect. The federal government needs to look at how we are organized to be able to respond to threats that are real time in nature and constantly evolving. As many people as we have trying to build safeguards, there are as many people out there trying to tear down our defenses.

It's also about making sure we don't have faceless accountability, so we know who is responsible. Recommendations [from Hathaway's report] are forthcoming as the president releases the review. Part of what we did was actually look at the comprehensive portfolio; as you know cybersecurity isn't just embedded in one area or system. It affects everything from commerce and the private sector to defense and government operations.