Notes from Federal CIO Vivek Kundra talk at UW

Here are my notes from Vivek Kundra’s talk at the UW for the Evans School of Public Affairs today. Vivek is the first *ever* CIO for the federal government, and it seems like he’s really enjoying the huge challenge.

Making Government Work – Closing the Technology Gap to Deliver for the American People

Part of the big issue is how the US Government spends money on information technology. NEed to cut waste, not just rely on the same group of people with the same ideas that have led to waste and inefficiencies. You’ve got to ask the question: when you can go online to book a restaurant table, why do you have to show up f2f for social security?

A couple of big themes:

The technology gap across the federal government – the example of the President fighting tooth and nail to get a Blackberry. Access to a Blackberry was based on number of years in government service! Other examples:
– Getting Veterans benefits – average wait time is 160 days, due to passing paper forms.
– Getting a patent – takes over three years to process a patent. Partly because US PTO receives applications online, then prints them out and rekeys info into old systems.

Not how you run a government in the 21st century.

Huge gap between what the private sector has done and what’s happened in the public sector. President convened a group of CEOs in January. Forum on Modernizing Government. Focused on 3 themes – Streamlining gov’t operations, improving customer service, maximizing return on IT investments. One thing became clear – government was not engineering to satisfy the people who use the services. The government thought it had a monopoly on ideas for the services it provides, therefore there was not a pressure to innovate.

Not a question of funding – the US government is the largest purchaser of IT on the planet.

Reasons for failure:

– Reluctance to make tough management decisions – initiatives continue to throw good money after bad. $27 billion of portfolio were projects seriously behind schedule or over budget.

– Government acts as a loosely coupled federation instead of an enterprise. Can’t take advantage of purchasing scale.

– Spend billions of dollars in closed, secretive and opaque manner. The Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative was classified until March 3, 2010.

– Focused on compliance instead of results. At State Dept, spent $133 million on reports on the security of systems they operate. Done every 3 or so years and filed away in locked rooms, which are more secure than the systems they describe. A huge cottage industry in reports which don’t get read or applied. Can’t address cybersecurity in this way.

– Self-image problem. Government thinks it can’t lead. It used to be that the government had the newest and best technologies. What happened?

The Federal Government does not have a monopoly on the best ideas. How do we tap into the innovative spirit of the American people? Idea for an open 311 API. Will allow for open interaction with government – report a broken parking meter, see when the snowplow is coming down your street, etc. Announced yesterday in San Francisco. Think about the iPhone – a platform for innovation.

The technology Agenda:
– Cut Waste. Halt or turn around IT projects that don’t deliver for the American people.
– Improve performance – fundamentally rethink the service delivery models.
– Enable an open, transparent and participatory government
– Secure our computing environment.

Cutting waste – Launched an IT dashboard. Takes you away from periodic PDF documents. Can see whether projects are on schedule, on budget, and delivering. Not enough to just shine light, but need to be aggressive in managing a $70+ billion portfolio. Just announced terminating $54 million of projects in VA. Now scaling this – TechStat accountability sessions – limited to 60 minutes with CIO and business leader of an agency. Based on dashboard data, get together with all the White House budget people to go over the details of projects. Not going to happen overnight.

Improve Performance and Deliver Better Service

The federal government has invested in data centers over the last decade – grew from 432 to over 1100. That’s unacceptable – spend over $19 billion on infrastructure annually. Fragmentation is due to the fragmented way the government operates. Takes away focus on how the agencies serve the public.

Trying to shift investments to the cloud. Leverage shared services through the cloud. Trying to not just webify brick and mortar operations. The Microsoft and Google government cloud initiatives are very exciting. Could get out of the business of continually building infrastructure. Three major issues: Security (where data lives and how it’s processed), data portability, interoperability.

Simplifying access to services – shifting lots of investments to mobile computing. Huge opportunity to get it right.

Marking progress in service – e.g. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online. Used to be really complicated because IRS wouldn’t share data with Dept. of Education. Simplified by asking the applicant if they want to share the info from IRS with Education. Saved lots of screens.

Applying for citizenship – moving from a paper-based filing system to an electronic process. Can see where you are in the process, average processing times by field office. Putting data in the hands of the American people.

Getting a tax refund – used to be a paper-based process. Why is it you can see three years of your tax returns from TurboTax, but not the IRS?

Enabling open, transparent, and participatory government.

A directive has been issued. New things happening – e.g. logs of White House visitors, charging agencies to make datasets available. Making sure every agency has an open-government plan. started with 47 data sets. Now have over 169,000 data sets, on every aspect of government operations. Cities and states are also rising to the challenge, and other countries (like the UK). The Sunlight Foundation launched a contest for apps, one winner shows average flight performance at different airports, flights, etc.

Securing OUr Computing Environment – a serious issue.

President directed a bottom-up review. Moving towards real-time monitoring of security issues, away from reports. The Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative is being declassified, so you can see how investments are performing. If it’s secret, you don’t really know if it’s working or not.

Delivering for the American People – making major investments to position the country for the 21st century. Catalyze breakthroughs for national priorities, promote competitive markets that spur productive enreprenuership., Invest in the building blocks of american innovation.

Shift to cloud computing is a decade-long journey. Lots of challenges, top of which is security. Work NIST is doing is very important.

For far too long the public sector has believed it has to build everything itself – the government has wasted huge amounts of money. Why not leverage consumer platforms? City of San Francisco lets you pay parking tickets over Facebook.

With had to ask the question – a grocery store or a series of restaurants? Decided it was important to create the platform (grocery store) to enable innovation, rather than the government trying to create the tools. The risk is the mosaic effect – if you release county or city level in a rural part of a state, for example, you might be able to identify an individual – trying to understand those issues. What’s the right atomic level for release of data?

The government should collect as little information as necessary for transactions. Balance between privacy and convenience. Trying to bake privacy conditions into anything they engineer. HHS has “red teams” to try to crack code before systems are released to try and guard privacy.

One of the requirements of Open Gov’t Initiative is that there be a senior official at every department responsible for data quality. One thing they’ve learned is that transactional systems frequently have horrific data problems, but they thought it was more important to get the existing data out there. Then they can work on crowdsourcing of data quality feedback, and look at how to improve data quality, within what’s affordable. As they modernize systems, making sure that new systems have a requirement to send a data feed.

How do we make sure we’re not just engineering technology silos? Idealab designs their space to make sure people run into each other – maximizing random interactions. When you look at the federal government agencies you see a sea of cubes or offices with closed doors. Wikipedia – example of creating a community where people go back and forth and challenge each other. In the government the incentive has been to remain quiet and un-noticed to get promoted. The Obama administration wants to make government cool and challenging. Give everybody the permission to speak up and participate.


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