When Vivek Kundra walked into the White House as the first Chief Information Officer for the federal government, his new staff handed him a stack of PDF documents representing more than $27 billion in IT spending projects that were over budget. Kundra, who recently joined Salesforce.com as vice president of emerging markets, told GigaOM’s Structure conference in San Francisco that one of the ways he dealt with that problem — apart from massive rounds of cost-cutting — was to move as much as possible to the cloud, and also to open up as much of the government’s data as possible to the private sector, as a way of spurring innovation. That last step, he said, represents a fundamental and much-needed shift in power away from government to the country’s citizens.
Kundra said one of the biggest challenges when he assumed the CIO position was the entrenched cultural resistance to change within the federal government, which he compared to the way the human body’s defenses attack a virus: “Most federal employees are like white blood cells,” he said. “When there’s a foreign agent in terms of change, the white blood cells attack — there’s a lot of resistance to change. It’s part of a culture of faceless accountability.” Kundra added that there were a lot of “Doctor No CIOs” within various government departments who preferred to hire consultants rather than pursuing innovation.
Although there was a lot of skepticism within the government about the shift to the cloud for hosting data and services, Kundra said that this resistance was similar to the reaction that companies and governments had to earlier innovations like email, the web and customer self-service via the internet. But all of those developments eventually became routine over time and governments and companies adapted, he said — and the same thing is happening with the cloud and cloud-based services.
Kundra said one of the things he was most proud of during his time with the federal government was the amount of data the Obama administration opened up not just for citizens but for the private sector to make use of:
If you think about what happened when the Department of Defence started to release satellite data, it gave birth to this entire new GPS industry, and soon people were navigating cities using that data… or when the national ministries of health released human genome data, that drove a huge explosion in advances in personalized medicine.
The government has released over 400,000 different data sets of information, Kundra said, and a number of small businesses and startups have been created around that data — including one app that lets users see what the mortality rate of a specific hospital is, what the usual outcome is of the surgical procedure they are about to undergo, and how people have rated that doctor or hospital. Another service lets users scan the bar code on a crib to see whether there has been a federal safety recall or not.
This kind of opening up of data “represents a fundamental shift in power,” Kundra said. “The fundamental principle around democratizing data is the shift in power away from this large institution to individuals,” and thereby to entrepreneurs who can innovate in ways the government never could.