Taking on a $75 billion behemoth, byte by byte

The US government's first CIO vows to shake things up to improve data transparency
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

For the first time, the U.S. government has a chief information officer who wants to shake things up, vowing to streamline and modernize the creaky, out-of-control, massive SpaghettiWorks of federal computer systems.

Casting sunlight and transparency on government always leads to good government, and it's going to be interesting to see how much good government has been trapped away within IT systems.

We're seeing some progress. Last week, SmartPlanet colleague Larry Dignan reported on the launch of App.gov, the federal government's cloud computing strategy.

There are plenty of other initiatives underway as well. Recently, Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, interviewed U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra at the Government 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C., which was published in TechTarget. The focus of Government 2.0 is better manage this $71-billion-a-year behemoth by promoting OpenID authentication at .gov Websites, and integrating and upgrading legacy systems, among other things.

For one, Kundra sees the ability to act and react to real-time data a critical element in leadership. "We want to get data out there on as real-time a basis as possible," Kundra is quoted as saying. There is a particular emphasis on improving the rate at which information relevant to healthcare, energy and education is made available at sites like Data.gov.

However, one huge obstacle stands in the way of providing this timely data to policymakers and government executive. The federal government has an aging infrastructure of legacy systems. As Kundra explained, "government transparency will take time and considerable expense. Legacy systems  work but aren't up to the stress of online integration, and agency computers that run on COBOL are still functional. Upgrading them for the sake of government transparency alone is an expensive and potentially contentious proposition, despite the open government directive."

In a separate report, Gautham Nagesh put this challenge in perspective: "Like many things in the government, IT systems generally only receive attention when something negative has happened. So as long as a system continues to function as intended, agencies are unlikely to seek upgrades in favor of more pressing budgetary concerns." Nagesh cites the example of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, which processes approximately two-thirds of the federal payroll on a 25-year-old system running a 30-year-old application. To upgrade this system would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, along with all the headaches and disruptions that go with migrating thousands of employees to the new system.

Still, Kundra is determined to move federal systems into the 21st century. Timothy O'Brien posted a summary of Kundra's remarks upon taking office back in March 2009.

Kundra is even looking at social media as an approach to better engage constituents. Kundra admits he is impressed by what "Facebook has been able to do in terms of self-organizing and civic participation. What they've been able to do is that they have over 140 million or so users and they've been able to self-organize on issues, on policy, on problems and create a movement so that people can be heard."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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