Federal CIO describes problems, changes in IT

Vivek Kundra talked about the many inefficiencies in government IT and some moves to make data more accessible

In describing ways that the Obama administration hopes to use IT to better serve the U.S. people, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra described some disturbing inefficiencies in the government today.

It takes the Veteran's Administration 160 days to process benefits for veterans, he said. "That's because the Veteran's Administration is processing paperwork by passing manila folders from one desk to another," Kundra said. Sometimes that involves sending a folder via UPS to another office.

Kundra spoke on Thursday at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs in Seattle, describing problems in the government's IT infrastructure and ways it plans to improve its processes to better serve citizens.

Another example of an outdated and inefficient agency is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which takes three years to process a patent, he said. "One reason is because the U.S. PTO receives these applications online, prints them out, and then someone manually rekeys the information into an antiquated system," he said.

When Kundra came to the job from his previous position as CIO for the District of Columbia, he discovered that the rule for giving government employees BlackBerry devices was based on the number of years they had worked in the government. "That's a perverse incentive," he noted. Instead, it would be more appropriate to dole out the phones based on the worker's role in the government and their need to access information, he said.

The State Department has spent US$133 million in the past six years on reports about the security of its systems. "They are done every three years or so and then filed away in secure rooms. Frankly, the paperwork and reports are more secure than the very systems they are supposed to protect," he said.

The federal government's office of personnel management, which oversees human resources in the government, stores its many files in metal cabinets in a cave in Pennsylvania, he said.

"This is not how to run a modern government in the 20th century," he said.

The administration has decided to look to the private sector for cues on how to do a better job with its IT infrastructure, Kundra said. "The president has said the best ideas are not necessarily within the four walls of Washington," he said.

In addition to consulting the private sector for ideas, the government is looking to the general public to create solutions. Kundra this week has spoken to CIOs from a number of U.S. cities about creating open APIs (application programming interfaces) for 311 data. 311 is a telephone number that most cities have that citizens can call to find and report information. Rather than individual cities creating applications around data available through 311, the idea is to let anyone -- individual developers, nonprofits or companies -- build applications that might be useful to citizens, he said.

Applications could include ones that let a person report a broken parking meter from their smartphone or look online to find out when the next snow plow will be coming to their street, he said.

"Think about Apple and the iPhone. Apple didn't go out and build 150,000 applications. It built a platform, and the innovation happened," he said. "What we need to start doing as the federal government is to tap into the energy and spirit and innovation of the American people."

The government has already executed a similar project with federal data. It has launched the data.gov Web site, which offers 169,000 data sets on every aspect of government operations, including transportation, health care, energy, environment and defense. The goal is for the government to encourage anyone to create useful applications around the data. For example, flyontime.us uses data released by the transportation department to display information about average delays for specific flights and airport security lines.

The government also hopes to cut wasteful IT projects. It has already terminated many, including 12 of the 45 that the Veteran's Administration was working on. One such initiative was 110 percent over budget and a year behind schedule, he said.

The government has also been examining its deployment of data centers. In the past several years, it has increased the number of data centers from 432 to more than 1,100, even as most private-sector companies are drastically reducing the number of data centers they run. "It takes away the energy and focus on what CIOs should be doing, which is, 'How do we serve you better rather than building another data center?'" he said.

The federal government has a "huge focus on cloud computing" and is excited to see private companies such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Salesforce building products to meet the needs of the government, he said.

Kundra pointed to a number of efforts that the Obama administration has already invested in to improve the performance of some agencies. For example, the process of applying for citizenship previously was "mysterious," with some applicants paying attorneys thousands of dollars just to find out where they were in the process, he said. Obama challenged the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a simplified process for publishing that data within 90 days. It did, and now people can look online to find out at what stage they are in the process. People can also look at the average processing time for applications per field office.

"That's putting data in the hands of the American people to see how performance is tied to investments across the public sector," he said.

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