When Vivek Kundra was appointed the first ever Chief Information Officer of the United States in 2009, he found his mandate wasn’t just to take a fresh look at his government’s information technology policy, but to turn it upside down. His boss was concerned that despite an annual budget of $80-billion, the public simply wasn’t getting its money’s worth from the government’s IT services.
“Dr. No,” the infamous movie villain, is the appelation Mr. Kundra uses to describe the stodgy and sometimes shady bureaucrats he came up against during his two-year run as President Barack Obama’s head of technology.
Mr. Kundra doesn’t consider himself a James Bond-like figure, even though his specialty is fighting the dastardly Dr. No’s of the world.
“I’d have to dress better,” he laughs over a dinner interview. There are, in fact, no shaken-not-stirred martinis on the table. He’s strictly a red wine drinker.
“They’re these evil CIOs that everyone hates because they’re the ones that tell you ‘you can’t bring technology to your workplace,’ ” he says. “They represent the greatest threat not just to innovation, but also to citizens getting the services they want.”
Mr. Kundra, who is in Toronto and Ottawa for a pair of speeches this week, effectively declared war on these types and the government’s entire IT establishment when he accepted the president’s job offer.
“It had very little to show for how it had actually changed the experience of the average citizen,” he says. “For too long, all the investments we were making were not in the interests of the citizen, they were in the interests of the bureaucracy.”
Mr. Kundra’s focus going in was fourfold and now, nearly a year removed from the job, he recalls some of his successes. He says he cut the budget down by $3-billion through killing idle projects and turning around others that weren’t performing. He also shut down 137 government data centres that were wasting resources.
Most importantly, Mr. Kundra believes he ushered in an era of accountability through the launch of the Federal IT Dashboard early in his tenure. The online tool publicly listed every government IT project and featured pictures of all government department and agency CIOs, complete with performance updates.
The move ironically made him the bad guy with those bureaucrats, but it got results as accountability started flowing from the president on down.
“It didn’t go over well, I became villain number one,” he says. “But Cabinet secretaries were calling them for the first time and asking questions.”
Cybersecurity was also a high priority for Mr. Kundra, since it was also another area where he was seeing tremendous waste. The State Department was routinely spending millions of dollars on consultants to study readiness levels, but all they produced were paper reports with little practical value. Instead, he created teams that staged mock attacks on their systems in an effort to deliver “outcomes, not process.”
His fourth goal – which, in speaking with him, seems to excite him the most – was to move the government toward opening up its vast data banks to the public. Historically, great things have resulted when this has happened, he says.
GPS technology, for example, came about thanks to the military’s loosening of satellite data in the 1980s, while big medical advances are now resulting from the National Institutes of Health sharing their research with the Human Genome Project more than 10 years ago.
Mr. Kundra says he managed to cajole some government agencies into opening up their data banks, which has resulted in several ventures that are now benefiting the public. One company used 401K retirement data to allow people to compare different plans offered by providers while another firm has charted hospital success rates. Yet another has created a smartphone app that lets users scan products before buying them to see if they’ve been recalled.
To hear him speak about the future potential uses of open data, it’s clear Mr. Kundra – still only 37 – is an idealist.
“You realize it’s much more fundamental, that it’s a shift in power, and that’s what people are afraid of,” he says. “This worldview that people should be treated as subjects rather than co-creators – what open data does is it flips that and says they’re co-creators, not subjects.”
His idealism is perhaps shaped by his colourful past. He was born in India and moved to Tanzania when he was one, where he learned his first language, Swahili. In 1985, when he was 11, his family once again relocated to Washington, D.C.
He recalls his first experience at school, where he approached a group of African American classmates. Since he didn’t know any English, he began speaking Swahili. “These were my friends in Tanzania,” he reasoned.
He thought they hadn’t heard him, so he spoke louder. Before he knew it, he was getting beaten up. “That was my welcome to America,” he laughs. His eventual English education, meanwhile, would come not from school but from watching Three’s Company.
After getting a Masters degree in IT from the University of Maryland, he did a quick stint at a consultancy firm but found it wasn’t for him because his co-workers were all significantly older. On a lark, he decided to interview for a job with Arlington County. He had no desire to work for government, but a friend convinced him the interview would be a good way to hone his job-hunting skills.
The interview turned out to be fateful, since it happened on Sept. 11, 2001. From the county offices’ windows, Mr. Kundra could see smoke from the plane that had hit the Pentagon. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, he became impressed with how government technology could have a larger, positive social impact, especially when dealing with disasters, so he took the job.
From there, he rose through the government ranks, working for the state of Virginia and then the city of Washington D.C. as chief technology officer. A short time later, the president came knocking.
Mr. Kundra’s big regret from his time in the administration was failing to streamline how the government buys technology. He would have liked to have instituted a new Committee on Technology that would have assessed all government needs, rather than every department continuing to do so individually. That would have introduced tremendous efficiencies and savings.
“I wish I had started driving that reform on day one rather than later on in the administration because that would have been a game changer,” he says. “It would have been a fundamental way to change how technology is funded across the board.”
Since his departure from government last summer, Mr. Kundra has taken on a fellowship at Harvard, where he has engaged in think-tank-like projects for how to spread open data. In January, he also joined software-as-a-service provider Salesforce.com. His job at the company is to try to win over governments in emerging markets to cloud-based technology.
In February, he also joined Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s advisory board on open government, which is looking to free up some of the same data in Canada that the United States has made available.
The two countries are very alike, he says, complete with the same government waste, bureaucratic inertia and prevelance of Dr. No’s.
“The political structures may be a little different, but the problems are exactly the same.”