Vivek Kundra’s Reflections on Public Service: A Recap

Former Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) Vivek Kundra will begin his fellowship at Harvard University this month. Kundra reflected on his time working at the White House for the Obama Administration in a 12-page document published on the Harvard Kennedy School of Business website. The document, titled “Reflections on Public Service,” recalls Kundra’s time working for the federal government and serving alongside dedicated and talented men and women of the United States. Kundra cites this past decade as an honor and experience of a lifetime.

In his essay, Kundra, who was replaced by his successor Steven VanRoekel on Monday, writes about his first day at the White House when he was given a “a stack of documents with $27 billion worth of technology projects that were years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.”

“My neighbor’s ten year old could look up the latest stats of his favorite baseball player on his phone on the school bus, but I couldn’t get an update on how we were spending billions of taxpayer dollars while at my desk in the White House,” writes Kundra.

Kundra was born in New Delhi, India and lived in Tanzania with his parents until the age of 11. When Kundra first immigrated to the United States he had trouble speaking English.

“I recall my first days at school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and seeing a couple of African American kids around my age,” writes Kundra. “They reminded me of my friends in Tanzania, so I walked up to them and starting speaking in Swahili. I was promptly met by strange looks, so I started speaking even louder to make sure they understood me. I suspect they thought I was making fun of them because the next thing I knew, I was being beaten up. Not the warm welcome I was expecting!”

From then on, Kundra worked tirelessly day and night and was eventually chosen to be a part of the first-ever transition team that focused on technology, innovation, and government reform.  Prior to serving for the Obama administration, Kundra was the Director of Infrastructure Technology for Arlington County, Virginia. He also served as Virginia’s Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology under Tim Kaine.

As the nation’s first Federal CIO, Kundra made it a priority to focus his direction on five areas: Ensuring openness and transparency, lowering the cost of government, cyber-security, participatory democracy and innovation.

“I was ready to embark on a technology revolution in the Federal Government that would crack down on wasteful spending; increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations; enable an open, transparent, and participatory democracy; advance the cyber security posture of the nation; and most importantly, improve delivery of citizen services,” writes Kundra in his reflection.

One of Kundra’s first projects was the launch of Data.gov, a website that provides access to raw government data. The first day, the government had less than 50 data sets up that were launched with a Minimum Viable Product. Two years later, there are almost 390,000 various datasets that cover thousands of government mission areas, from health care to public safety. According to Kundra, hundreds of innovators from all over the country are helping put these datasets in action. So far, hundreds of applications have been created.

“One app helps you select the right hospital when seeking treatment. It uses data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to compare the cost and effectiveness across hospitals for various procedures, from knee replacements to neonatal care,” writes Kundra. “Another app uses data from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to help travelers pick the best days and times to fly. The app uses data from more than 11 million flights, covering 303 airports, and 19 different airline carriers to analyze performance of airports by day of week and time of day, and assess airline carriers by flight route and travel time.”

According to Kundra, we will begin to see an explosion of apps based on open data platforms worldwide.

Another project launched by Kundra was the Federal IT Dashboard. The IT Dashboard is a public website that gives an assessment — in terms of scheduling, cost and CIO ranking — of various large government IT projects. If a certain project is over budgeted or requiring more time, the American public can see it along with a picture of the person in charge. If that wasn’t enough to start a controversy among high-level government executives, Kundra established TechStat sessions that gives in-depth accountability reviews to turnaround, terminate or stop underperforming IT projects so that money is not wasted. Through the TechStat sessions, over $3 billion was saved and the time to deliver these projects was cut in half.

As Kundra writes, “We saved $193 million by terminating the Department of Justice’s failed attempt to develop a unified case tracking system. The project’s price tag had doubled since its start in 2006 and it had yet to deliver a useable product.”

Although the IT Dashboard and Data.gov websites were some of Kundra’s remarkable creations, his decision to cut spending through the closing of data centers came at a most crucial time for the White House. With a determination to move many systems to the cloud, Kundra instituted a “Cloud First” policy that sped the safe and secure adoption of cloud computing by shifting it up to $20 billion worth of federal IT spending to cloud-based solutions, saving American taxpayers billions.

“Ultimately, this will allow the Government to better serve the American people and focus on mission-critical tasks instead of on purchasing, configuring and maintaining redundant infrastructure,” writes Kundra. “Every federal agency is now moving to the cloud. And the results are exciting. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission made it easier for investors to report fraud by launching a new case tracking system in the cloud. This new, paperless system is more reliable, efficient, and accurate than its predecessor, allowing investigators to close out cases up to 75 percent faster.”

As Kundra reflects on his White House years, he is proud of the work he has done and believes that he has helped show that it is possible to change the status quo.

“We saved billions in taxpayer dollars; we adopted game changing technologies; we strengthened the cybersecurity posture of the nation while making it more open, transparent, and participatory,” writes Kundra. “We have shown that it is possible to change the status quo. But we must remember that nothing is immune to the laws of physics, especially entropy. Left alone, things tend to move from order to disorder – and the hard work this Administration has done to reform Federal IT could fall back unless we keep our shoulder to the wheel.

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