U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra's Departure Raises Doubts About Nation's Top IT Role
The news that U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra is leaving the federal government in mid-August to accept a fellowship at Harvard University leaves many unanswered questions. For starters, where does this leave his initiatives?
Kundra, who was named the nation's first CIO by President Barack Obama in March 2009, had just released a 25-point plan for improving federal IT. There was general agency buy-in. But how much of that buy-in was lip service is unclear. His ideas about allowing the use of consumer products in the federal government may get some traction if only because federal budgets are so tight that CIOs will do anything that might save money. The idea of moving mission-critical applications such as email to the cloud is less clear.
The federal CIO has no authority outside the Office of Management and Budget. While he can evangelize the ideas he had about open-source and cloud-based computing, Kundra had no means by which he could actually require such changes. He also had no budget to make them happen. In the Executive Branch, each agency or department runs its own IT. The CIO in each agency reports to the agency head, not to the federal CIO.
This means, ultimately, that IT managers and agency CIOs that don't agree with the federal CIO's direction on how their operation should be run can simply ignore him. They know that they'll still be around long after the political appointee leaves. So generally, these managers give the ideas lip service, but otherwise they simply out-wait them. This is partly because they know that someone in Washington has no idea what their agency's data center is doing and partly because they know that the CIO's suggested changes don't come with a budget attached, so they're almost impossible to implement.
The next person appointed to be the federal CIO will have to work with the same lack of authority and a budget to carry out real changes. In addition, the next CIO will have a host of new challenges, including:
- A very significant level of security threats;
- Antiquated IT environments that are much too old to move to the cloud (or even to new computers) and for which there are no funds for updating those environments;
- Significant operational challenges with many of the ideas that have been floated so far.
The bottom line is that the job of federal CIO is a tough one--perhaps too tough for the position as currently envisioned.
For more, read the eWeek article Federal CIO Vivek Kundra Heads to Harvard with IT Goals Unfulfilled.