Our colleague Shyamantha Asokan was at the White House on Thursday morning for a roundtable with incoming chief information officer Steve VanRoekel and his predecessor, Vivek Kundra, who was appointed by President Obama in 2009 as the country’s first federal CIO.
Not only was VanRoekel, the former Microsoft executive, unfazed by the prospect of trying to persuade a government that has to make $917 billion in cuts over the next decade to pay for snazzy new technology projects but he actually saw the belt-tightening as an opportunity.
VanRoekel’s role will focus on using technology to streamline government and cut costs. This was one of Kundra’s top priorities.
“The productivity gap between where the private sector has gone over the last two decades and where government has gone is ever-widening,” VanRoekel, 41, told reporters Thursday morning, referring specifically to the government’s slow uptake and lack of spending on new technology. “[This] can be done in a way that actually saves money, saves resources and everything else.”
Kundra has made serious headway in this area. His “cloud-first” policy encouraged government departments to shift to cloud computing, reducing the need to buy certain hardware for every office. He also cut inefficient IT projects and improved transparency with a series of public Web sites, such as usaspending.gov and itdashboard.gov. He has saved the federal government $3 billion overall, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Kundra, 36, is leaving the post to pursue a joint fellowship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
The U.S. government is the world’s largest single buyer of IT products and services. VanRoekel, who spent 15 years at Microsoft and became managing director of the Federal Communications Commission in 2009, will oversee $80 billion in spending this year.
However, despite the optimism of VanRoekel and his new colleagues at the OMB, their projects have been hit by austerity measures. Most notably, Congress this year slashed funding for the Electronic Government Fund to $8million, down from $34 million last year.
As a result, usaspending.gov and the itdashboard.gov will not be updated. Some ventures will be cancelled, including FedSpace, an internal Web site for federal employees.
Kundra was tight-lipped on this topic. One hope for his successor is that the 2012 budget includes a funding boost. “We’re working with Congress on the E-Gov fund and funding in general,” he said.
Another hope is that citizen participation, a characteristic of many new technology projects, will help keep costs down. While at the FCC, VanRoekel created an iPhone app that allowed ordinary users to submit the information needed to build a Web site called broadbandmap.gov, which maps Internet connectivity across the country.
Another top priority for the new CIO will be cyber-security. As some government departments shift from their own email systems to Google mail — a well-known example of a “cloud” service — increasing hacking raises parallel concerns.
Kundra said that cybersecurity had recently shifted from “teenagers who were basically having fun in terms of defacing websites ... [to] nation-states that were building offensive cyber capabilities and organized crime.”
Google said in June that hackers based in China had gained access to hundreds of Gmail accounts, including some belonging to senior U.S. government officials and military personnel. U.S. authorities said no official government e-mail systems were breached on that occasion, but it was unclear whether any victims were forwarding their work e-mails to Gmail accounts.