Soon after Vivek Kundra became the federal chief information officer in March, he met with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) about federal technology spending.
Coburn, the co-author, along with then-Sen. Barack Obama, of the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA), and Kundra discussed why federal technology projects fail and why the return on investment many times is much less than expected.
The Defense Department’s Future Combat System and the Census Bureau’s handheld devices are often cited examples of this systemic problem.
“There continues to be a number of IT failures, a lack of transparency and as we looked at the Management Watch List one of the most difficult things historically is looking at that list and figure out the health of IT investments and projects,” Kundra says. “Unfortunately it didn’t give a lot of visibility into what was going on and what was the root cause of some of these problems.”
Additionally, agency CIOs were quietly being pushed out of the board room, and back to the server room.
“We’ve noticed the past couple of years was the role of the CIO was being moved further down into the organization,” Kundra says. “The Census Bureau is a classic example where CIO was not involved in making some of those decisions. The White House is leading the way. The President has appointed a CIO and chief technology officer. It reflects the importance of technology to this administration.”
To help solve these and other ongoing challenges, Kundra Tuesday unveiled the Office of Management and Budget’s new way, called an IT dashboard, to track IT projects and hold agency CIOs-and others-more accountable for the program’s performance.
“This requires a new foundation built on transparency, responsibility and accountability,” Kundra says. “A new foundation that requires we lean forward and say ‘look there are structure problems that have existed and there are issues for how we are managing IT projects,’ and that has been the impetus for rolling out this dashboard, which is to make sure we have the ability to make available the data in terms of how we manage IT investments across the board to the public, and also tap into people across the country.”
The public can access unfiltered data related to IT spending, and they can view the progress of IT investments. The dashboard also offers tools for the public to analyze spending, to ask questions to CIOs and to offer suggestions for improvement.
Kundra says “billions in technology”, $76 billion to be exact, are being spent annually, and 300 million Americans can now see where their tax money is going, comment and offer “innovations” for how the government can do better.
“People don’t know the problems we are trying to solve in the federal government,” he says.
The dashboard is part of USAspending.gov and part of the effort to revamp the site.
Kundra says the dashboard also includes pictures of agency CIOs, which helps avoid “faceless accountability.” The dashboard also illustrates an initiative’s cost, timetable, delays to the projects and performance. It uses a red, yellow and green rating system to illustrate where the agency stands as well as how a specific project is doing.
OMB and the CIO Council are asking for direct feedback on the dashboard. Kundra says this tool uses the “power of online organizing” to let users import and manipulate data.
The site provides data that can be sorted and embedded in Web sites, such as Facebook, and through Excel spreadsheets and view RSS feeds.
Defense deputy CIO and CIO Council vice chairman Dave Wennergren says this “agile technology” is only the beginning of what’s to come.
“Transparency sets you free,” Wennergren says. “You have better dialogue on the interior and the exterior.”
Kundra says that the beginning stages of the IT dashboard is “an important journey about how taxpayers’ money is spent.”
Even though the primary focus is on IT, the government plans to use the interactive IT dashboard as a launching pad to apply to other areas of government spending.
The reaction inside and out of government has been positive.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, says the dashboard “marks another leap forward for open government, public accountability, and management efficiency and serves as a model to open up more information on federal spending.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the same committee, calls the dashboard a critical piece to holding the government more accountable for results and progress.
But she says, “federal agencies must pair this transparency with better up-front planning and concrete steps to end failing programs or get them back on track.”
Dan Mintz, the former Transportation Department CIO and now CTO for civil and health services group for CSC, says there will be both short and long term impact on agencies.
The short term will be all about the project and CIO’s ratings. But the long term, he says, could have a significant impact on the government.
“It establishes the publication of intermediate results,” he says. “There is a tendency in all organizations and perhaps more so in the government that people do not like to expose information until they are at the final step. They want it to be polished and perfect.”
He adds that the dashboard makes it OK to publish imperfect data and expose it along the way.
“This will be a big change and will take getting used to,” Mintz says. “Vivek will push down and agencies will make sure their processes are consistent and comparable across all the government.”
And Ed Meagher, a former Veterans Affairs deputy CIO and now director of strategic healthcare initiative for SRA International, says the biggest benefit is giving CIOs more authority and accountability.
“The new administration is putting folks on the record saying you must manage to a certain level and to a certain degree,” he says. “It really does give the CIOs the kind of authority and resources, and visibility he or she wants to do the kind of job they have asked to do.”
Mintz adds that the new tool will make agencies rethink the relationship between departmental CIOs and agency technology chiefs.
“Who has the responsibility to evaluate projects and who is accountable?” Mintz asks. “When I came to the department, I focused on more important programs, and over time I came to realize how important legitimately the agency CIOs were at the department, in terms of implementation and relationship to their own program people. So for last year or so, I spent time focusing on how we measure process, were the right people looking at programs from financial management, acquisition, technology and program people.”
Kundra says OMB and the CIO Council already are working on version 2.0. In the next two months, agencies will begin reporting monthly on projects and new features will be added.
Wennergren says State Department CIO Susan Swart is leading a working group to come up with the dashboard’s next steps. And Kundra says OMB and the council want ideas from agencies, contractors and the general public about how to make the tool more useful.