Kundra leaves OMB with mixed record

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra will leave a mixed track record when he departs the Obama administration.

Office of Management and Budget director Jack Lew announced Kundra's departure on Thursday, ending his two-and-a-half year stint overseeing the executive branch's information technology portfolio. Kundra will head to Harvard University in mid-August to serve as a joint fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

"When he began at the White House, he brought with him the promise of good ideas and a hard-charging style focused on getting things done, necessary qualities to tackle the difficult issues facing Federal IT – an aging infrastructure with rising operating costs, too many major projects failing to deliver, and increasing vulnerability to outside threats," Lew said.

An unconventional choice for the top IT job in the government, Kundra came to the Obama administration without the engineering background or extensive federal government experience typical of his predecessors (while his title of federal chief information officer is new, Kundra's position previously existed in OMB).

From his previous tenure as chief technology officer for the District of Columbia he brought with him a passion for embracing consumer technologies and publishing government data online, promising a new era of transparency in government.

Kundra's tenure got off to a rocky start; just days after his appointment the FBI raided his former office at the D.C. government and arrested several employees in a bribery investigation. Kundra was placed on leave by the White House, which soon reinstated him after Virginia Governor Tim Kaine went to bat on his behalf.

Kundra's top deputy in the D.C. Office of the CTO Yusuf Acar was eventually sentenced to 27 months in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and steering contracts to vendors in exchange for kickbacks.

Upon taking office Kundra quickly established himself as a champion of outsourcing federal web applications to the cloud in order to reduce costs and increase flexibility. He also took the lead in cutting a number of costly agency IT projects such as financial management system overhauls, which he claimed saved a total of $3 billion in future funds slated for those projects.

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But other high-profile projects championed by Kundra have drawn criticism, such as the online data warehouse Data.gov, which was supposed to give the public and developers access to a plethora of government data feeds that could be re-purposed for other uses. Transparency advocates claim most of the data on the site is not that useful or was already available in some format online. In addition they argue that most of the sets are only good for creating maps.

Kundra's other pet project, the IT Dashboard, was supposed to give the public real-time information on the status of federal IT projects. The site has been the target of steady criticism from the Sunlight Foundation and other good government groups, who argue the data does not accurately reflect the current state of federal IT projects.

OMB has acknowledged problems with the site's data, but still claims the site has helped determine which projects are worth saving and which should be cut.

Cuts to the E-government fund in the budget deal reached earlier this year jeopardized the future of both sites, with Kundra acknowledging that the lack of resources would impede updates.

The White House recently proposed a significant overhaul in the way government spending data is published online, while House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) unveiled a bill that would scrap both entirely and replace them with something more effective.

Kundra seemed aware of the challenges facing him in April when he agreed with President Obama's assessment of federal technology as "horrible," claiming the governments IT systems were "undeniably broken" when the administration took office.

"These problems weren’t created overnight and they won’t be solved overnight," Kundra said at the time. "That’s why we are aggressively cracking down on wasteful IT spending and turning around poorly performing projects."