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Global CIO: Federal CIO Vivek Kundra's $5Billion Credibility Gap

Kundra's first year brought inspiring visions but also misguided support for runaway spending--will he reverse that in 2010?

Bob Evans

January 4, 2010

6 Min Read

So did you hear the one about the CIO with the 2009 IT budget of $71 billion, which breaks down to $200 million per day? He decided that for any year—but particularly for the gut-wrenching economic climate of 2009—such a number was totally unsustainable, indefensible, and just plain wrong.

But instead of hacking into that wasteful excess, this CIO padded the flab with another $5 billion, amounting to an increase of 7% and pushing the grand total to $76 billion! And hey, c'mon now, knock off the smart-aleck comments—how's a CIO supposed to get by on $200 million a day??

Let me ask you folks out there in the real world: anybody's IT budget go up at all last year?

Ten months ago, when federal CIO Vivek Kundra started his job as our country's first CIO, he inherited that budget of $71 billion, and not long afterward got the $5 billion increase to $76 billion. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he didn't want even the $71 billion to start with, and that he fought against the $5 billion increase but larger and more-entrenched forces jammed it down his throat. I don't buy that, but for the moment let's say it's so.

(For more on federal CIO Vivek Kundra, please check out our "Recommended Reading" list at the end of this column.)

Let's further agree that while this job description for CIOs is oversimplified, the broad truth is that CIOs today on the operational end need to deliver better information to more stakeholders more rapidly and across more devices and formats than ever before. Over on the strategic end, they need to help generate new revenue streams, increase customer loyalty, enhance customer engagements, accelerate new-product development, and relentlessly contribute to the creation of greater customer value.

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I refuse to believe that federal CIO Vivek Kundra cannot fulfill the operational end of his mandate with an annual budget of $50 billion, rather than $76 billion. I refuse to believe that he cannot do what so many other CIOs have done and find new ways to stretch a sharply reduced IT budget to meet those objectives with better leadership, tighter communication, more-rigorous requirements, less cronyism, and more focus on customers (plus, of course, that not-so-trivial $50 billion).

I refuse to believe that Kundra's strategic objectives would be rendered unreachable if each and every day he had only $137 million to spend instead of $200 million.

And I'm willingly suspending that belief because so many other CIOs—you people out there across every industry and every sized company, regardless of unique competitive challenges or any other external factors—did exactly that in the past year: you chopped your budgets severely and then got together with your teams and figured out better ways to do things. Not more-expensive ways of doing things, but better.

I've heard Vivek Kundra speak at length about his role, I've seen him answer some tough questions, and I've read many thousands of words written about him and his new role. He's clearly smart and apparently quite brave; he seems more than willing to try to recreate the mess that is federal IT in the nature of the citizen/customer instead of that of the bureaucracy/history; and his youthful exuberance plus his technological savvy make him an ideal breakthrough thinker and communicator for a challenge of this nature.

But Vivek Kundra's next challenge will be his toughest: Leadership to match the words, toughness to match the vision, and accountability to his own position to match his promise of accountability for others. It is unconscionable that we—citizens, legislators, bureaucrats, the White House—allowed $5 billion (think of that number again: $5 billion) to be added to the federal IT budget at a time when 99% of all non-governmental IT budgets were being cut.

In business as in life, we rarely get second chances. But in the months ahead, Vivek Kundra—dashing young public-sector figure, Web 2.0 visionary, first American ever to hold his office, and keeper of a $76 billion budget—will receive exactly such a second chance. He will have the chance to show that his position and his organization deserve respect and not ridicule, that he and his organization can be true transformers of public-sector IT and even thought-leaders for the private sector, and that he truly believes in his mandate to help lower the cost of government operations while delivering higher-quality services.

But he cannot do that if he maintains his other-worldly and disastrous spending arc of $76 billion per year. He cannot do that if promises to hold the line and pretends he's walking a mile in the world of private-sector CIOs. He cannot do that if he continues to accept the ruinous behavior of spending whatever you happen to get while ensuring that next year you ask for more.

And he surely cannot do it if he allows the monstrous $76 billion IT budget sinkhole to be expanded, a pattern that has resulted in some of the worst-performing IT operations and projects that anyone could possibly conceive.

But I believe Vivek Kundra can deliver on his own great promise and the vast potential for an entirely new way of conducting the business of federal IT if he takes an essential step: promising to cap federal IT spending at $50 billion, while delivering to taxpayers not just better services but also $26 billion of their hard-earned money.

If he does that, he will have earned the Chief of the Year award bestowed upon him by InformationWeek, as well as the accolades he's received elsewhere. If he does that, he'll have made an enormous contribution to the ability of citizen-customers to engage with their government.

And if he doesn't, he'll be making it perfectly clear to everyone with a brain that it's business as usual with federal-government technology, and that we can all expect more of the same hazy, ineffective, low-value, untrustworthy, and pathetic performance we've seen in the past. That's a legacy I can hardly imagine that Vivek Kundra would want to leave.

About the Author(s)

Bob Evans

Contributor

Bob Evans is senior VP, communications, for Oracle Corp. He is a former InformationWeek editor.

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