D.C.'s Kinetic Tech Czar
Monday, January 5, 2009
In his first meeting of a recent day, Vivek Kundra stood in front of a large monitor, grilling employees about the status of projects to revamp technology in Washington's schools, police cars, jails and health clinics.
Kundra, the chief technology officer for the District, begins most of his days this way to keep close tabs on his department's progress. Looking at a pie chart on the screen, he questioned how $39,000 of the budget was spent to rewire the health department's network. The money was used to reconfigure the network's Internet addresses, a project manager told him.
"Why would that take $40,000?" he snapped. "This project seems like a sham right now. We need to take the happiness level down for this one."
The "happiness level," a measure of a project's success, is just one of the tools Kundra, 34, has developed in his quest to improve the way the District's 86 agencies use technology. In the 18 months since joining Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration, Kundra has gotten attention for taking an unconventional approach to government, which is not typically first to adopt the latest computing trends.
Kundra has introduced popular consumer tools to bureaucratic processes, runs his office like a tech start-up and works by the mantra that citizens are "co-creators rather than subjects."
His ideas have caught the eye of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team and landed him a role as a tech policy adviser to the new administration. His approach could serve as a model for how a federal chief technology officer, a new position Obama has pledged to appoint, might operate. Kundra has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the job.
The bidding process for city contracts is posted on YouTube, for example, and his employees use versions of Wikipedia and Twitter in the office. He wants to let drivers pay parking tickets and renew driver's licenses on Facebook.
In October, he launched a contest called "Apps for Democracy" to encourage developers to create applications for the Web and cellphones to give District residents access to city data such as crime reports and pothole repair schedules.
"I expected to get maybe 10 entries, but we got 47 apps in 30 days," Kundra said. He said he spent $50,000 for the contest and prize money, and estimates he saved $2.6 million over what it would have cost to hire contract developers.
"I don't want to buy technology the old way," he said. "Three years ago, D.C. schools spent $25 million to deploy a human resources software program. It failed, and not a single person was fired," Kundra said as he rushed between meetings. "And they had the audacity to ask for more money. How is that an intelligent use of taxpayer money?"
Fenty credits Kundra with digitizing personnel files for the school system, a project, the mayor said, that "saves us a lot of money and got us into compliance with auditors." Fenty said Kundra is also trying to put more computers in schools and give students an electronic identification card to track how they are responding to after-school programs, libraries and technology labs.
Kundra has frustrated some schools advocates. One duty of his office is to plan the technology infrastructure for new and renovated schools in the District. Terry Lynch, a parent and member of a school improvement team, said there have been glitches in the implementation at several schools, including Emory Elementary, Hardy Middle and Phelps High schools.