Thursday, April 9, 2009

Back Again!

I've waited a bit just to make sure, but it appears that Vivek Kundra finally is back to stay.

His saga is a cautionary tale for everyone seeking to serve the Obama administration, though. Washington is a "no good deed goes unpunished" town. In attempting to make personnel decisions carefully and to avoid conflicts of interest, the Obama administration has unleashed an evil djin--a crowd of pundits, bloggers, reporters and groups ready to pounce on the slightest taint. Once leashed, this monster will leave no stone unturned, no closet unopened. I suppose that is as it should be, especially in this era of transparency, but it's going to take some getting used to. Remember the days when all manner of private peccadilloes remained private?

I guess sunlight will be disinfecting us all now. So here's a reminder: Don't commit anything to the Ethernet, public records, or anywhere else unless you are prepared to see it, well, everywhere.

And now that Kundra is back, expect to see mountains of once-hidden or impenetrable federal data being unearthed, cleansed, transmitted and revealed. The countdown begins . . .

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Say It Ain't So, Vivek Kundra!

So Vivek Kundra already has been forced to take leave of his brand new post as federal chief information officer just days after he finally was officially named to the job. He had been working in the Office of Management and Budget unofficially for a while before the formal announcement, giving rise to rumors and mutterings about why no announcement was forthcoming.

Today, as he spoke to a large audience at the government technology expo, FOSE, in downtown Washington, FBI agents raided the offices where he had served as the District of Columbia's chief technology office since 2007.

According to WTOP Radio, which broke the story of the raid, they took two men into custody. One, Yusuf Acar, is acting chief security officer for the District and buys computers and hires contract employees for city offices. He was charged with bribery of a public official, money laundering, wire fraud and conflict of interest. The other, Sushil Bansal, is president and chief executive officer of Advanced Integrated Technologies Corporation. He also is a former D.C. government employee, charges against him include bribery of a public official, money laundering, wire fraud and conflict of interest.

The two allegedly conspired to fraudulently bill DC for inventory and workers that never appeared, then split the payments.

WTOP reported that AITC had been working for DC since 2004, but that its billings doubled to more than $5 million in 2008 after Kundra took over.

Let's face it. This doesn't look good for Kundra. Even if he bears no taint at all of the alleged crimes, they occurred in part on his watch. According to WTOP, "Bansal's company has offices in D.C. and India and received more than $13 million in business with the D.C. government in the past five years, according to court documents."

So many people, myself included, have had such high hopes for Kundra as a prophet of virtual government and a smart, apparently good-hearted agent of change who both understood and appreciated public servants and the challenges they face. Of course he is innocent until proved otherwise, but Washington is an unforgiving town and Obama is a very careful and tough president facing a snarling GOP ready to pounce. Already he has passed on a number of nominees with lesser problems than a new FBI investigation swirling around them.

Having been on a panel with Kundra and studied him and his accomplishments from afar, I was an early supporter. I remain a supporter of his Gov 2.0 spirit and accomplishments today. But I am sad. Just very, very sad, no matter how this turns out. It's like the tragic story of White Sox slugger "Shoeless Joe Jackson," who was suspended from baseball for life with seven others accused in the infamous "Black Sox scandal" of having thrown the 1919 World Series. "Say it ain't so, Joe," a young fan is said to have implored Jackson outside the courthouse. Tonight I feel what that youngster must have felt.

Shoeless Joe and his seven compatriots were acquitted by a Chicago jury in 1921, but were banned from the game nonetheless. One fears a similar fate for Kundra.

Whatever happens, I salute WTOP's Mark Seagraves for sticking with this story like a terrier with a bone. It's nice to see some good old shoe-leather reporting for a change. It's a dying art, Mark. Big ups.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What Does 'Transparency' Mean?
Reposted from GovLoop, Feb. 11, 2009

At CGI Federal, where I now work as a "thought leadership" editor, we've been mulling the meaning of transparency lately. Current parlance seems to have it meaning things like posting legislation and regulations for comment, posting videos of speeches and directions via YouTube or other such services, agencies getting on Twitter. All sorts of public-facing openness, in other words.

But we've been focused on another sort of transparency: "management transparency," for lack of a better formulation. Admittedly, this interests us because we put into operation a large percentage of the government's financial management computer systems and we know they can harvest a lot of very useful data and transform it into insight about agency operations. In other words, we have a business interest in managerial transparency. But even if we didn't, I would be thinking about transparency this way.

I am, after all, a true federal management geek. I ran Government Executive magazine's part in the Federal Performance Project for five years, for Pete's sake. The thought of dashboard displays on the computer screen showing things like changes in units of performance by location and cost per unit in different operations boosts my blood pressure. Discussions about how to best measure results of federal programs in outcome terms can keep me up until dawn!

So I am, of course, hopeful that the Obama administration's transparency focus includes the notion that federal managers should be making decisions about programs, personnel and budget using data about how well or badly their programs and administrative functions are delivering internal and external results. After all, data-driven decision-making should apply to more than just global warming!

So now I am wondering, is anyone else looking at and thinking about transparency this way? That is, as opening the books on how agencies operate and how money is apportioned within them both to those who run the programs and to the public and Congress and everyone else with some skin in the game?

Has anyone gotten past the "coolness" factor to begin thinking about what meaningful and relevant transparency would be within government? I just read David McClure's new Gartner piece about transparency and even he only hints at this kind of definition. I ask because if we don't get past the MySpace/mashup phase of transparency, we'll have wasted a prime opportunity to apply data-driven decision-making where it could really do some good.

I'm just askin' . . .

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I'm Back, So Is Kundra

News of my disappearance has been greatly exaggerated!

Those of you who had written me off should have known better. In fact, I was simply hibernating until my prediction about Vivek Kundra came true, well, almost. Today has WFED radio in DC and NextGov (a blogging stomping ground of mine) reporting that Kundra will take not the greatly diminished federal CTO slot, but the old Karen Evans position in the Office of Management and Budget, administrator for e-government and information technology.

This is good news. The CTO seems to have been relegated to a more ceremonial, bully pulpit sort of job and Kundra would be wasted there. He's much more a pragmatic, practical, let's-get-it-done sort of guy. Just ask people in his Washington, DC, CTO office for an idea of how he will handle the OMB post, if the news is true. I draw upon my own firsthand experience of him in November at the national Academy of Public Administration annual conference.

Kundra was a surprise speaker on our panel about Web 2.0 in government. I can't recall the verbatim exchanges during the workshop, but I do recall the gist of what happened next. After he quickly recapped all the instances in which he had capitalized on 2.0 tools in DC, a county government employee asked a question. It seemed that his council members were pressing to have all the checks written by his department posted online so citizens could see exactly who the government was paying and for what. The questioner wanted the workshop attendees' opinions of that idea since he found it disturbing and impractical, essentially because people would have no context for viewing the checks and would likely misconstrue some of the spending as a result.

Kundra gently, politely and firmly said, in essence, so what? Do it anyway. His clear preference is, as is President Obama's, for more transparency than less, more use of 2.0 tools than less, more reuse of existing and ubiquitous applications (e.g. Google docs) than fewer, less development of complicated, large new systems and more simple, elegant innovation via participation (e.g. Apps for Democracy).

So again I say: Prepare for pre-solicitation conferences on YouTube and other public video sites, basic office work apps in the cloud, exposure of many heretofore hidden processes to the public and lots of "Why not?" queries to the naysayers. This administration has a much higher opinion of citizens' intelligence and right to know and understand the workings of government than any that came before. This public has a much lower tolerance for being kept in the dark because government is just too complicated to understand than any public of yore. And we're all way too economically pressed and angry and frightened to put up any longer with not knowing how our taxes are being spent.

No more enterprise architectures so complicated and Byzantine for even their intended users to understand. No more Frankenstein's monster Lines of Business, no more endlessly caveated performance accountability reports. Patience is short, time is short. This is the fierce urgency of now. If we have more than one of it, shut down the least effective ones or consolidate them into the most. If it isn't vital, stop doing it. If government can't do it as well as the private sector, have the private sector take the government employees and do it better. If it can't be used across all or most agencies, don't buy it, create it, improve it, or even propose it.

I am certain that Vivek Kundra paid his taxes and lives a life not unlike most of the rest of us. I doubt he has accepted a car, a driver or fees from anyone likely to be benefiting from his posts. So I am reasonably sure he will be taking the OMB job, and thank goodness.