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The Jury Is Still Out On The Vivek Kundra Era

Federal IT contacts give CIO mixed reviews

By joltsik on Mon, 06/20/11 - 3:02pm.

The 2-year reign of Federal CIO Vivek Kundra is officially ending with the announcement last week that Kundra is leaving to take a fellowship at Harvard University. In announcing Kundra's departure, OMB director Jack Lew stated: "Two and a half years after joining the administration, Vivek has delivered on that promise. He has cracked down on wasteful IT spending, saved $3 billion in taxpayer dollars; moved the government to the cloud; strengthened the cybersecurity posture of the nation while making it more open, transparent, and participatory. His work has been replicated across the world from 16 countries that have deployed the data.gov model to tap into the ingenuity of their people to multiple countries that have deployed the IT dashboard to save money."

Interestingly, I saw nothing but similar glowing reviews from others as well. In a blog on the Huffington Post, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark applauded Kundra for, "making major contributions to the country," and "saving billions."

Given these glowing goodbyes, it seems like no one has anything but positive feedback -- that is until now. I too have been following Kundra's career since he first appeared in 2009. Throughout that timeframe, I've discussed Kundra frequently with Federal IT professionals to get their opinion on how he was doing. Now that he is moving on, let me summarize what I've heard over the past few years, the good and the bad.

First the good points:

1. Federal IT people loved the fact that Kundra provided a positive and professional image. Federal IT professionals are often accused of being generations behind with technology and prisoners of bureaucracy. Kundra was a great communicator who did a great job of pointing out some of the cutting-edge IT work in the Federal space. To some extent, Kundra made Federal IT cool.

2. Kundra was a great bridge between Federal IT and the IT industry. He knew how to talk to vendors and how to communicate Federal requirements, strategies, visions, and concerns.

In summary, Kundra was a great communicator who greatly expanded Federal IT visibility and attention but my Federal contacts also point out that the Kundra era was no day at the beach. Some of the more critical feedback I often heard included:

1. Kundra was more of a CTO than a CIO. CIO tell the IT staff to cut costs by 25% while simultaneously delivering high-value business applications. CTOs then figure out how to build an IT infrastructure to achieve both objectives. Kundra's insistence on cloud computing was too myopic and technology focused. His biggest critics believe he was, "in the technology industry's pocket." In addition, Kundra spent a lot of time speaking at industry events trumpeting cloud computing and not enough time working with agency CIOs to understand business processes and highly customized IT applications that won't be moving to the cloud anytime soon.

2. Kundra's cloud first mandate was wrapped around a message of "saving taxpayer money," but in the process, it spun up a whole lot of fire drill activities that completely disrupted productivity. For example, every agency was tasked with identifying projects for the cloud and given a deadline to do so. How many person hours were wasted in this effort? It should be noted that the private sector is taking a much more pragmatic and measured approach to the cloud. This suggests that Kundra may have been way too aggressive with cloud computing -- a mistake that will end up costing MORE money in the short term.

3. Many of my federal contacts either question or didn't believe Kundra's constant selling of success metrics. For example, Kundra identified $20 billion worth of IT spending that could be moved to the cloud but a lot of these projects were things like "moving 25,000 NOAA email accounts to the cloud," that would have been characterized as outsourcing 3 years ago before Kundra arrived. Is this real progress or creative accounting? A lot of the IT consolidation that Kundra was given credit for dates back to the e-Government Act of 2002 while the projects he cancelled may have been more rooted to the grading system of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. In other words, there was a general feeling that Kundra was talking credit for new initiatives that were actually well on their way before he came on the scene.

4. Finally, I sense a lot of resentment that Kundra spun up a whole bunch new initiatives and is now moving on to greener pastures. My Federal IT contacts may not have liked the cloud rhetoric or self promotion but they are public servants who want to do right for the taxpayer and see things through. As one friend put it, "it's easy to come up with ideas but it's hard to execute on them." Sadly, Kundra is now free to move a safe distance from any accountability. If things don't work out, critics will ultimately blame any failures on poor execution, not a drive-by leader who didn't stick around to see his vision become reality.