Filters kill innovation: ex-US CIO Kundra

Ex-US government chief information officer (CIO) Vivek Kundra believes that internal internet filters, like the one currently in place within the Federal Government, can stifle innovation, limit productivity and often miss the root cause of internal security breaches.

Ex-US government chief information officer (CIO) Vivek Kundra believes that internal internet filters, like the one currently in place within the Federal Government, can stifle innovation, limit productivity and often miss the root cause of internal security breaches.

Vivek Kundra

Vivek Kundra
(Vivek Kundra image by personaldemocracy, CC BY-SA 2.0)

"I think the natural inclination is to focus on the dark side of technology, and I think that falls truest when people say 'do you want innovation or security? Well, if you want security, don't connect anything to the internet at all, don't use any technology and don't let in modern society.' It's the argument that a lot of people advance, and I think that this is a false choice; innovation and security should co-exist," he said.

Kundra added that so much is often invested in so-called "defensive security" that a government could lose sight of its main objectives in IT-based navel-gazing exercises.

He said that a fix for balancing ongoing innovation with security concerns is cloud-based computing, arguing that it is often more secure than conventional computing at a government level.

"I would argue that in many cases, that cloud computing is far more secure [than conventional government computing strategies], because you can actually concentrate not just on the technology ... but on the talent you hire.

"When you think about the weakest link [in your security], it probably comes down to a social-engineering perspective, not just from inherent technology itself," he said.

Kundra made the comments on the same day that a Senate estimates hearing revealed that a mandatory internal internet filter has blocked 35 million sites from the parliamentary network, including the entire .info top-level domain.

Kundra, now with Salesforce, is on a flying visit to Australia, stopping in Sydney yesterday to share his extensive experience in fixing billions of dollars worth of government IT waste.

We the people: fixing government waste

Kundra said that his job as the first US government CIO was to dream big when it came to technology, as he had to find "the reset switch" for one of the world's most wasteful bureaucracies.

When Barack Obama took office and appointed Kundra to the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform (TIGR) team, several thousand files changed hands. Inside those files were records, balance sheets and progress reports on hundreds of technology projects across agencies that were over time, over budget and over complicated. Kundra said that the projects he had been handed were over budget to the tune of US$20 billion. It was time to not only cut the fat, but also to make agencies accountable for their own blatant waste and mismanagement.

The task, he said, was immense.

"How do you change the US government?" he recalls asking himself. "It spends US$80 billion [on technology procurement per year], has over 12,000 major IT systems worldwide and is an organisation that is really difficult to change, given the preconceived notions of how tech needs to be deployed," he said.

Kundra found his first answers on what was to change when he was confronted by his first Senate hearing.

"A Senator asked me, 'what are you going to do to change the way this government spends money?'," he recalled.

"I said, 'Senator, I'm going to launch an IT dashboard, and on that dashboard I'm going to put the status of every project in the government and the picture of every CIO'," Kundra said he announced boldly, "'and I'm going to deliver it in 60 days'."

The dashboard was to rate projects in red, yellow and green, depending on where they were in the delivery timeline and how much the respective agencies had spent. It would also be open to public comment to show the people what was being spent by whom, and to demonstrate how the public service could be more responsible with its money.

Kundra's team immediately told him to retract the statement, but the CIO refused, saying that the government needed real IT accountability. Over the next 60 days, Kundra said that he became public enemy number one within the public service as he worked day and night on the dashboard.

"I took the photo of every CIO, found every private manufacturer and let the public comment on what was being spent," he said, adding that once it went live, it "restored the trust between a government in its people".

Kundra even organised a photo of Obama using the system to scare IT managers into accountability.

Kundra continued on his mission of eliminating waste in government by slashing the amount of datacentres in use from 2094 — running average CPU cycles of 24 per cent and an average storage volume of 40 per cent — down to a far more efficient 492. He also implemented the now famous "cloud first" strategy that saw agencies forced onto cloud computing before running traditional procurement that cost millions of dollars more.

"The old [procurement] model, the status quo, encouraged people to spend billions on ... blueprints that are never used. You'd be surprised how many times US$50 million dollars bought you a binder of drawings you could do nothing with. You go to cloud, not just because it saves you money, but it can give you the same services faster."

Deployment times went from an average of five years down to an average of five weeks as part of Kundra's first cloud initiative, saving the government millions.

The future

Kundra believes that Western societies, like the US and Australia, have focused on productivity as the number one priority over the last 30 years. In the future, he believes that it's going to be about absolute efficiency and connectivity.

"The last 30 years was all about productivity; the next decade and beyond is going to be about humans' ability to connect with each other. It's not going to be this old model where lots of money is spent with very little results."

He said that he continues to be impressed by the $35.8 billion National Broadband Network (NBN) project, as it will enable citizens to re-skill themselves in a changing economy.

"Firsthand, I've seen what it means when you implement tech well. In Virginia, as tobacco farms were being shut down, these people didn't have access to broadband or the ability to re-skill themselves ... so I was very impressed by Australia's investment in broadband when I first heard about it.

"If you're not plugged in, you can't compete."

He added that efficient technology change has to start with a leader that is interested in technology, giving the example of how Obama used the dashboard that Kundra created to put a fire under agency CIOs.

"Change starts with a president. We created this role of a US CIO that had never existed before. Having his support [was essential] ... the president took a picture of himself browsing the IT dashboard. I got all these phone calls from CIOs. One agency halted 45 projects ... after the [dashboard] went out.

"Leadership is really, really important," he said.


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