Meet Vivek Kundra: bringing the “digital public square” to you

Meet Vivek Kundra: bringing the "digital public square" to you - top government contractors - best government contracting event

Meet Vivek Kundra: bringing the "digital public square" to you - top government contractors - best government contracting eventEver since Vivek Kundra was appointed Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia by Mayor Adrian Fenty in March 2007, he and his team have been leading the way in innovation. Kundra coined the phrase, “digital public square,” which stands at the heart of his efforts to engage citizens and make government services more effective, accessible, and transparent through online innovation. The results speak for themselves. In 2008, InfoWorld Magazine named Kundra among its “CTO 25“ “” 25 senior IT leaders from government, nonprofits, and private industry. These days, Kundra is also helping President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team come up with new ideas for leveraging technology. Kundra recently sat down with ExecutiveBiz to share some of his team’s latest innovations “” and what’s on the horizon as CTO of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), an organization of over 600 staff that provides technology services and leadership for 86 agencies, 38,000 employees, residents, businesses, and millions of visitors.

Tell us about the “Apps for Democracy“ contest you created in Washington, D.C.

Vivek Kundra: The Apps for Democracy contest is part of our drive toward digital democracy. Especially in these difficult economic times, it's crucial to the government's mission to find more efficient and impactful methods for delivering an even higher level of service for a fraction of the cost.  DC Government's Apps for Democracy contest was held over the course of a month this fall as a part of our effort to find innovative technologies and engage citizens in what we like to call the “digital public square.“

Making government data public was one of my key priorities; by organizing the vast stores of data on every aspect of government operations “” from government contracts to crime statistics to economic development “” into convenient catalogs and 200 live data feeds, this new democratization of government data now puts citizens in the driver's seat. Once the data went public, we noticed that individuals and organizations were not only viewing our data, but were actually improving upon our work by analyzing and repurposing the information in useful ways.

One innovative DC resident took it upon herself to aggregate government data on service requests, crimes, and building and public space permit applications to create an online information clearinghouse for her own neighborhood. Thanks to her, neighbors can use her site to track economic and real estate developments in their own backyard. I wanted to leverage the talents and interests of our technologically-savvy citizens to create some real public value, at a fraction of the cost.

The contest, which was open to the public, invited technology developers across the nation to compete in creating applications for popular consumer technologies like the iPhone, Facebook, Map Mashups, and others using data from our online data catalog. The very first submission, submitted 24 hours from the contest kickoff, was from an individual who created a location-aware iPhone application that can identify the locations of crime incidents in the surrounding area, as well as tell the user where the nearest Metro station is and the time of arrival for the next train. Overall, we were thrilled with the results “” the Apps for Democracy contest brought us 47 applications in a matter of 30 days, with an investment of $50,000. Had we pursued these technologies through the traditional procurement method, we would have spent millions of taxpayer dollars and the process would have taken years.

What structural changes have you made to make DC Government more accountable?

Vivek Kundra: When Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed me to his cabinet as chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, I asked a simple question: Why can I find the real-time stock price and performance of any publicly traded company with a few keystrokes, but I can't get solid information on the performance of information technology projects in the government? My answer was to create a Wall Street model for managing the $950 million-plus District IT portfolio as a portfolio of stocks. In the model, each project is a “company,“ its team is company management, its schedule and financial status are captured in market reports, and customer satisfaction is the market reaction. The model allows us to balance riskier strategic IT investments with more conservative ones and rebalance the portfolio whenever necessary. The model also fosters government transparency and accountability “” we deliver accurate, real-time performance data to officials using web reports, podcasts and videos.

I built a team of five portfolio managers to run the Wall Street model according to three core principles. First, apply the efficiency of the stock market to IT governance. In an environment of shrinking budgets and growing citizen expectations of government, evaluating the performance and promise of IT projects continuously and accurately is critical. With the Wall Street model, we can make fast and sound decisions to “buy,“ “hold“ or “sell“ an IT project “” that is, invest more financial resources or change management to improve performance, maintain the current resource level or cancel a failing initiative. Second, I wanted to capture quantitative and qualitative data. The IT stock model incorporates both quantitative and qualitative analysis to provide a holistic picture of the investment. Quantitatively, the portfolio managers analyze vital project statistics, including the schedule, what has been spent against budget, and return on investment. Qualitatively, the portfolio managers evaluate the management team, customer satisfaction and current project-related events to ensure a deep, integrated understanding of the project's drivers and results. Finally, I told my team to treat taxpayers like investors. We define the portfolio managers' roles as guardians of taxpayer funds. Ultimately, these managers must ensure that all District agencies spend taxpayer dollars wisely on technology investments. The genius of the American stock market is to put capital to the most efficient use, continuously redirecting funds from low-performing companies to high performers. Our IT stock-market model infuses the same efficiency in government, assuring citizens the highest and best use of the tax dollars they entrust to us.

You coined the phrase, “digital public square.“ What is it?

Vivek Kundra: The idea of the “digital public square“ is really at the heart of our efforts to engage citizens and make government services more effective, accessible, and transparent. In ancient Athens, citizens met, face to face, in the agora “” the public square““to conduct business, debate civic issues, and drive the decisions of government. The days of daily meetings at the agora, however, are gone. Today, citizens know government as red tape, long lines, and cold, distant bureaucracies. The reins of government have slipped from “we the people“ to inaccessible government officials.

In the District, however, the idea is to treat citizens as cocreators of government, rather than as subjects.  So far, we've had a great response; citizens are eager to dig in and get involved. The digital age has given us the opportunity to be more inclusive and transparent in all of our activities. With 1.5 billion people on the Web, it is vital for government to leverage the power of technology.  Engaging citizens in this square led to 47 applications that were conceived, developed and delivered in 30 days.

Interview with Vivek Kundra was conducted by JD Kathuria

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