The coming death of open government


Vivek Kundra, second from left, resigned as the nation’s first Chief Information Officer. Will the president’s Open Government Intiative go with him? (Susan Biddle/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Vivek Wadhwa
Contributor, Innovations June 22, 2011

Vivek Kundra’s resignation last week from his post as the nation’s Chief Information Officer is an ominous event.

Kundra’s goal was to set government data free via an expansive Internet effort called Data.gov, and encourage innovation with government-collected data through the Open Government Initiative. He had hoped to slash tens of billions of dollars from the government information technology (I.T.) budget by democratizing who and which types of companies can deliver I.T. solutions to the government. The most radical part of his program was to make public data available to entrepreneurs, allowing them to build new applications that solved problems for the government and their communities.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

The program was off to a great start, with hundreds of thousands of data sets becoming available, and entrepreneurs building thousands of innovative applications. Then the ill-considered race to slash the Federal deficit started. The Obama Administration agreed to cut e-government initiative funding from $35 million to $8 million. Never mind that Kundra’s programs had already saved taxpayers $3 billion over the past two years.

Not surprisingly, Kundra resigned. Why preside over a portfolio of shuttered initiatives? In a phone interview, Kundra acknowledged that he is worried about the program’s funding, but told me that he believes that the open data initiative has so much momentum that it is unstoppable, echoing the sentiment issued in his formal statement that he is “confident progress will continue.”

But, with Kundra gone, I am not optimistic about the program. Whenever a program loses its key evangelist, it normally dies. The Open Government Initiative is likely to suffer a slow, inevitable death.

We may live in the richest nation on Earth, but most government agencies and large corporations still process their mission-critical transactions on ’60s-era legacy systems that were designed for machines with less processing power than an iPhone. And they’re more expensive. The I.T. systems for these mainframes typically took years to build and cost millions of dollars — and that doesn’t include the hundreds of millions more we spend to maintain them.

Today, software developers can churn out more sophisticated applications for thousands – not millions – of dollars. So, while grandma flips through photo albums on her iPad and watches streaming videos from Netflix, our government relies on cumbersome web-based systems that function by tricking mainframes into thinking that they are connected to cathode ray tube (CRT) terminals.

The problem is catching very prominent attention. When President Obama could not get a late-model Blackberry, he complained that the U.S. government was 30 years behind when it comes to technology. But, while he may have noticed and pushed for reforms in the early part of his administration, President Obama certainly has not made a priority of advocating for Kundra and his laudable goals.

In January 2010, I issued a challenge to Silicon Valley to bid on a rewrite of an unemployment benefits check-processing system that the California government had budgeted $50 million just to maintain. I was met with a hail of criticism from government I.T. contractors who claimed that complying with government mandates for security was complicated and that their experience best positioned them to keep the government’s systems humming. A senior vice president of one of these firms went so far as to call me “naïve” and to say that I should not “kick something” that I “know absolutely squat about.”

Meanwhile, half a dozen Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with deep domain experience came forward. They all believed they could build a better government I.T. system for a mere fraction of the annual operating costs—as low as $1 million.

A year later, no one has taken these entrepreneurs up on their offer, even as California prepares for a draconian round of budget cuts that will hammer poor children and the education system. Meanwhile, featured on the home page of the Data.gov is a picture of a cupcake with two lit candles and the festive words “ Happy 2nd Anniversary, Data.gov.” It’s a hollow celebration marking the gutting of a rare win–win scenario that resulted, while it lasted, in both less spending and better government.

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