We sat down with Vivek Kundra, Federal CIO, just a few days after the launch of the Open Government Directive on December 8th, 2009. He was recently named the Chief of the Year by InformationWeek and has been an instrumental role in the U.S government’s IT operations in the past 9 months that he has been in office. We had to opportunity to speak with him about the responses to the Open Government Directive, the opportunities for the private sector, as well as take a look at his personal side, such as how he manages his work/life balance in the video below.
ExecutiveBiz: This past week there was a webcast on the open directive for government; can you talk about what has happened since the public airing of that webcast and what your role is in that?
Vivek Kundra: The directive was informed by a lot of input from people all over the country in terms of how we could open up our government and it’s grounded in the President’s philosophy of a transparent, open and collaborative government. Part of what we will be doing at OMB and I’m going to be working very closely with Aneesh Chopra on making sure that we actually hold everyone accountable now that the directive is out in the public domain and it instructs agencies to make everything available from three data sets minimum that are high value to making sure they have got plans to opening up the data and the operation of their government. On an ongoing basis what we are going to be doing is monitoring what is happening with the forty-five day deadline, the sixty days, ninety days and one hundred twenty days but it is again grounded in this concept that the best ideas are not just within the four walls of Washington. How do we create a government that is for the people and by the people and what do we do to leverage the power of technology to realize that the President’s call is for a transparent, open and participatory government.
ExecutiveBiz: What opportunity do you see for the private sector to support the government to achieve that goal?
Vivek Kundra: I think there are huge opportunities. Just within forty-eight hours of the directive going alive we had a number of companies that reached out and talked about how they could help with the President’s agenda for a transparent, open and participatory government. Not only that, but if you just think about data.gov some of the stuff that we have already done. We believe there is a huge market to unleash the power of technology and to unleash innovation in ways that were structurally impossible before. Just think about the data that has been put out there in the public domain already. We’ve seen what has happened with these light weight applications and whether flyontime.us applications like data matcher that there is a whole new industry that is going to be born as a result of data.gov. An industry where you can curate the data, provide information and add value to the datasets but more importantly the ability to slice, dice, cube and look at the true value that lies at the intersection of these multiple datasets.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you talk about the response you’ve had from the federal employee agencies as you roll this out?
Vivek Kundra: We’ve gotten tremendous response and overwhelmingly the response has been extremely positive. From a number of these initiatives that have gone forward and the requirements in the open government directive itself people have been hungry to work with us to make sure that they are putting out information in the public domain, that the government is operating in the daylight rather than behind closed secretive doors. What we are seeing already is people are volunteering to step up and rise to the challenge that the President has issued. Just from data.gov alone we have over 243 people that are working on the initiative. When it started it was a small group of people who were in a white Ford, three or four of us and that was less than four or five months ago, now there are over 243 people.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you talk about the SAVE awards?
Vivek Kundra: Sure, so one of the great things about the SAVE awards is it taps into the ingenuity of the federal workforce. For too long I think that people haven’t honored the service of the federal workers and don’t recognize the great ideas that lie on the frontlines. Through the SAVE award what we’ve been able to do is we’ve been able to see some of the best thinking on how you can improve government operations whether that has to do with how you can make an appointment on line through the Social Security Administration or whether that has to do with providing better service and lowering the cost of Veterans Administration in terms of distribution of medicine. Thirty-eight thousand ideas that came out of the SAVE award within a short period, less than three weeks. All of these ideas and this diligence of public officials who day in and day out are addressing these issues have changed the way we run Washington. They are informing the way we are thinking about public policy but more importantly through the SAVE awards they are also informing the way the budget is going to be done this year.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you talk about how an open government directive might impact the typical way business is being done now in terms of the government services model?
Vivek Kundra: For too long what has happened in Washington is that we’ve looked at this grand, large scale problem and everyone assumed that it would take decades and cost billions of dollars. We believe that now through the ability of crowd sourcing or the ability to bring everybody to the table and as the President has said he wants to engage the best minds across the country to make sure that the government works and changing the way that Washington works especially. Think about what happened when the DARPA challenge that was issued where DARPA had put out on the fortieth anniversary of the internet balloons all over the country and challenged for $40,000 people across the country to figure out where these balloons were geographically. You had a small team at MIT that was able to do that within nine hours, that’s amazing. Now imagine if you looked at some of the toughest problems that our country faces; whether it is education, healthcare – how can we tap into the ingenuity of those people and realize that we don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas just within Washington but how do we open up government so that we can improve it.
ExecutiveBiz: People often ask the difference between what your role and interaction is with Aneesh Chopra and how that works and how that relationship is working and how it works from a policy perspective. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Vivek Kundra: Aneesh and I work very, very closely together. As the CTO he is in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. As the CIO I am in the Office of Management and Budget. Aneesh is focusing a lot on research and development and thinking about some of the national priorities around how we can introduce game changing technologies to have a huge impact. I am focused on what we are doing with the $76 billion we spend annually on information technology. How do we make sure that we are managing information technology investment? How do we drive transparency, accountability and participation within government? The two of us work very, very closely on that. We are very focused on delivering on efficiency and effectiveness and at the end better experience for the American people. An example would be what happened with “Cash for Clunkers” where Jeff Zients, Aneesh and I came together to look at some of these really big problems in terms of the demand side. I still remember leaving at 7:00am on a Saturday to go to Delaware to figure out what we could do to make sure that the systems were up and looking at the demand side and that we are using business intelligence platforms to be able to predict performance. We were up late at night – the three of us came together and worked closely with Secretary LaHood. It was Secretary Lahood and his team who worked really hard to make sure that that program was successful. The three of us came together adding value in terms of our backgrounds and expertise and how you could deploy technology from a management perspective, turning around a program that added demand that no one had anticipated.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you tell us the story of when the President saw your dashboard and how that came about and what you experience was around that?
Vivek Kundra: The IT dashboard, when we deployed it one of the things that we did was to make sure it was consistent with the President’s philosophy of an open and transparent government because the President believes that transparency and openness and participation ultimately drives better performance. One of the interesting things was that we were in a meeting with Rahm Emanuel and then we talked to the President who saw the dashboard and it’s the famous picture you will see of the President on the Federal IT Dashboard. As soon as I blogged and put out that picture in the public domain all of the Cabinet Secretaries and CIOs across the federal government saw that picture of the President focused on performance. What was fascinating was that I must have gotten a ton of calls that day – people came up to me and said their secretary had called them and they were a CIO at an agency and said why is this investment red, why is this investment yellow? What can we do to turn it around? The President is fully engaged and is committed to making sure that we are using technology to improve the performance of the federal government and it is shocking to see what an impact that has had on turning around some of those projects. We are seeing that happen at the Veterans Administration. We are seeing that happen at Homeland Security. We are seeing that happen at HUD and a number of the other agencies in terms of some of the programs they have put in place.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you talk about what it is like to be in this role? How has it changed you? What have you learned over the last 6-8 months?
Vivek Kundra: First of all it is an honor and I am very, very humbled to be in the role that I am in and the President’s decision to put me in this position. As you know I was born in Delhi and grew up in Tanzania. It is a classical story of an immigrant family where we moved here in 1985 and I didn’t really speak any English. Through the years with the values that my family has instilled in me in terms of hard work and public service are reflected in my beneficiary of struggles that my family went through early in life. A big part of what happened this year with this President – what he has been able to do is to reach out across communities all over the country to make sure that he is providing opportunities for everyone. What is really exciting for me is to actually see the number of young people in this Administration and the mentors in this Administration that are working so hard and so diligently and are rising to the President’s call that making sure in these tough economic times and in an era in which government needs to work, the government needs to produce results that they are working day in and day out. Everyday I walk down the halls I see people coming in here at 4 or 5 early in the morning and working late hours in service of the American people. I couldn’t have picked a better path in life than public service.
ExecutiveBiz: What was it like growing up in your household?
Vivek Kundra: I grew up in a household that I’ve got four sisters and I’m the middle child. I have two older sisters and two younger sisters so it is almost like having five moms where they all have advice on every aspect of my life. I think having grown up in a household with four sisters has really helped me understand life from a very different perspective and I understand exactly where my wife is coming from, from every single direction.
To watch a video on Kundra’s favorite hobbies click here.