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Unless you’ve been on vacation and out of reach of those pervasive networks, you are no doubt aware that Federal CIO Vivek Kundra is leaving his post at the White House in August to join Harvard University as a joint fellow between the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The White House announcement recognized that Kundra "cracked down on wasteful IT spending; saved $3 billion in taxpayer dollars; moved the government to the cloud; strengthened the cybersecurity posture of the nation while making it more open, transparent, and participatory." It goes on to point out that Kundra’s leadership has been replicated by governments across the world.
Even the most casual observer must realize that at least some of these credits are overstated. Don’t get me wrong, clearly Kundra has demonstrated leadership and considerable vision during his 2 ½ year tenure in the Federal CIO position. He worked to bring poorly planned and executed IT projects to the light of day and increase transparency and accountability through the TechStat process and associated IT dashboard. He encouraged open government and led the successful execution of the data.gov initiative and considerably added to the volume of government datasets available to the public for a variety of uses. He developed a comprehensive 25 Point Plan to improve the performance of IT across the government. He also established a Cloud First policy and a cloud computing strategy to guide its execution.
In spite of these achievements, there are aspects of these efforts that have not lived up to expectations of either Beltway pundits or the public in general. In spite of some of the criticisms I have seen since the announcement, there really is little doubt that Kundra has evangelized a compelling and aggressive vision for Federal IT. Where there is room for valid criticism is the lack of progress in overcoming the considerable inertia of the massive Federal IT ecosystem. This is obviously a complex issue but one that lends itself to the leadership capabilities for his successor to carry these visionary efforts forward.
There is already widespread speculation about Kundra’s likely successor and accompanying speculation about the frontrunner and possible dark horse. There is also speculation that the White House will again look outside of the "short list" of Feds to bring in a surprise "outsider" once again. In lieu of jumping into this conversation, there is value in clarifying the highest priority leadership traits the White House should seek in his successor. Clearly a compelling and transformational vision is one thing. But the ability to link that vision to execution and make progress against a culture of resistance is another thing entirely.
Earlier this year, a research study of senior Federal IT managers’ perceptions of cloud computing identified budget constraints as the top challenge – even over security. So clearly, the ability to bridge between the Administration and Congress and achieve the support necessary to provide sufficient funding levels to execute is needed. Moreover, some level of experience working within the massive Federal IT machine to understand the Fed IT culture and operational characteristics is also necessary to bolster the bridge between policy and operational execution across Federal agencies. In addition, sufficient leadership expertise is necessary and proven experience transforming large, loosely affiliated IT operational organizations is also a requirement. And finally, the ability to take this vision and build upon it to close any gaps and communicate very effectively across very diverse and often conflicting constituencies and unify them to a common goal is critical.
Without a doubt, Vivek Kundra has demonstrated considerable vision and leadership through his tenure as the Federal CIO and made demonstrable progress in some notable areas. He is to be commended and even congratulated for his efforts and progress that he has been able to make. Yet, those in the White House that will select his successor need to take note and recognize that the leadership traits necessary to keep the progress from being lost in the Federal IT abyss are not necessarily the same as those that Kundra used to accomplish what he was able to do. And by all means, don’t forget the importance of continuity when transitioning from vision to execution.