Former Microsoft executive Steven VanRoekel has been named the nation’s top technology chief, the White House announced Thursday. VanRoekel succeeds Vivek Kundra, the 36-year-old who pioneered the role.
VanRoekel, 41, said he would use his new role as chief information officer to introduce new technologies to improve government service as well as focus on cutting costs in an age of austerity.
“The productivity gap between where the private sector has gone over the last two decades and where government has gone is ever-widening,” VanRoekel told reporters at the White House on Thursday, attributing this largely 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,” he said.
VanRoekel spent 15 years at Microsoft — including a stint as Bill Gates’s assistant — before becoming the managing director of the Federal Communications Commission in 2009. At the FCC, he oversaw the implementation of many of Kundra’s projects, such as a shift to so-called cloud computing.
The U.S. government is the world’s largest customer for IT services and products. VanRoekel will oversee an annual spending budget of $80 billion.
Kundra, who is leaving to pursue a Harvard fellowship, was appointed the country’s first federal CIO in 2009 and has been credited with $3 billion in savings, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Kundra’s “cloud-first” policy encouraged government departments to shift to cloud computing where possible, allowing employees to access more services online and reducing the need to buy certain hardware for every office. He noted on Thursday that two departments, the General Services Administration and the Department of Agriculture, stand to collectively save $42 million over five years after shifting their e-mail systems to the cloud.
Kundra also was credited with improving transparency by putting vast amounts of government data online, with Web sites such as usaspending.gov and itdashboard.gov.
OMB officials are optimistic that the government will continue to invest in such projects even with increased belt-tightening.
“The difficult budget environment actually helps build momentum for our efforts to do more with less,” said Jeffrey Zients, OMB deputy director.
This year Congress slashed funding for the Electronic Government Fund to $8 million, down from $34 million.
As a result, usaspending.gov and itdashboard.gov will be kept on but not updated. Some ventures will be canceled, including FedSpace, an internal Web site for federal employees.
Some public policy analysts said the spending cut had put a dent in gains made by the Obama administration. “One of the best things this administration has done has been to put data online. This has been extremely useful for researchers and also for accountability,” said Darrell M. West, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.
Some hope the 2012 budget may restore some funding, but West said this was far from certain.
“It’s often the way that the last service to have been put up is the first one to get cut, while more established services survive,” he said.
Another hope is that citizen participation through social media and other technology projects will provide some support. While at the FCC, VanRoekel created an iPhone app that allowed ordinary users to submit the information needed to build a website called broadbandmap.gov, which maps Internet connectivity across the country.
Cybersecurity will also be a top priority for VanRoekel. Increased hacking has raised concerns as some government departments shift to Google mail — a well-known example of a “cloud” service.
Google said in June that hackers based in China 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, but it was unclear whether any of the victims had been forwarding their work e-mails to Gmail accounts.