Technology

Obama's New Tech Czar


Vivek Kundra says he'll improve the federal government's technology, but he faces an immense challenge

After Vivek Kundra took charge of the District of Columbia's technology operations in late 2007, he ushered in a new era of experimentation—adopting popular Web sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and Twitter to improve city services. Now, as the newly appointed chief information officer of the federal government, he plans to bring the same spirit to the national stage. But there's a huge difference in complexity and scale. The District's technology budget is relatively tiny, and its staff concentrated, while the federal government's budget of $71 billion is spread across dozens of departments and agencies that often fight outside efforts to influence their operations.

Yet Kundra is serious about bringing the latest Net technologies to the federal government. In his first one-on-one interview since being named to his post, the 34-year-old native of India told BusinessWeek he hopes to transform the way the government uses technology. He plans on making it more efficient by getting agencies to share information and computers. And he'll use social networking Web sites to open a conversation between the government and citizens. He also believes government should no longer build all of its computing systems and Web sites from scratch, the way it has in the past. "I want to make sure we're leveraging innovations from throughout the world," he says.

Kundra faces a daunting task. The federal government is better known for technology fiascoes than successes. In the 1990s, the IRS took more than a decade and $8 billion to upgrade its tax return processing system, and the FBI's $600 million Trilogy project, aimed at streamlining the agency's case tracking system, was so badly botched in the wake of the September 11 attacks that some agents began referring to it as the "tragedy" project.

Lack of Clout

Kundra also doesn't have the kind of control over the government's tech budget that a corporate CIO typically has. Massive bureaucracies such as the Defense Dept. and IRS are used to operating independently and will probably fight off attempts to control their technology spending. In addition, Kundra's goal of making government activities and information more open to the public collides head-on with its responsibility to guard people's privacy and protect national secrets. "This won't be easy. It won't happen overnight," he admits.

Still, Kundra has more clout than his predecessor, Karen Evans. She ran IT for the Office of Management & Budget, and was essentially a coordinator of technology use within government. Kundra, as Federal CIO, will have a say over departmental technology budgets, so he may be able to prod departments not to waste money on things like their own standalone data centers. He'll also report in to the White House and head up the government's CIO Council, which brings together tech chieftains from all of the agencies.

Computer industry leaders welcome some of his ideas. Harry Raduege, a former CIO within the Defense Dept. who is now a director at consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, says it's important to have a CIO with an overarching vision who can break down the walls between departments. Right now, he says, "it's like an orchestra without a director."

Clusters of Computers

Business leaders also praise Kundra's affection for so-called cloud computing. Rather than each department of government having its own data centers, he wants departments to share large clusters of computers (known in the industry as "clouds") so they can squeeze more efficiency out of them.

But Kundra faces skepticism, too. His plan for using more open-source software, such as the Linux computer operating system and MySQL database, is an affront to Microsoft (MSFT) and Oracle (ORCL), which sell software that competes with open-source products. Security is another flashpoint. Some cybersecurity experts fault Kundra for urging D.C. employees to publish their activities on Twitter, the microblogging site. "The problem is that Twitter is absolutely not secure. It leaks information that should not be known publicly," says Gary McGraw, the chief technology officer of Cigital, a security software company.

All agree that the federal government has an abysmal record when it comes to using technology and is much in need of reform. Besides the implementation troubles on projects like those at the IRS and FBI, planning and acquisition can take so long that technology is obsolete by the time projects are completed. One of Kundra's top priorities is speeding up the process. "We're going to do something about the high rate of failure in government IT," he says.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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