News Analysis: Vivek Kundra may have found that he was given an impossible job and finally left once it became clear that the post of federal CIO was never going to work.
The fact that Vivek Kundra
has decided to leave the federal government to accept a fellowship at Harvard
should surprise no one. There are several reasons why it should have been
expected, even predicted, despite the fact that Kundra probably didn't realize
it himself initially.
First, trying to implement a
huge but vague mandate such as the one he was given is difficult to the point
of impossibility. Second, executives placed into these high-profile positions
are used to getting results. But in the federal government, results are very
slow to come even in the best of times.
Playing into the probable
frustration that Kundra must have experienced is the temporary nature of the
job. He served at the pleasure of the president, and President Barack Obama's
first term is starting to wind down with a tough re-election campaign fast
approaching. Kundra had no certainty that his tenure-and thus the
organizational changes he wanted to make-would survive the election.
Then of course, there's the
nature of the federal bureaucracy. The federal CIO has no authority outside the
Office of Management and Budget. While he can evangelize the ideas he had about
, Kundra had no means by which he could actually
require such changes. He also had no budget to make them happen. In the
Executive Branch, each agency or department runs its own IT. The CIO in each
agency reports to the agency head, not to the federal CIO.
This means, ultimately, that
IT managers and agency CIOs
that don't agree with the federal CIO's
direction on how their operation should be run can simply ignore him. They know
that they'll still be around long after the political appointee leaves. So
generally, these managers give the ideas lip service, but otherwise they simply
out-wait them. This is partly because they know that someone in Washington has
no idea what their agency's data center is doing and partly because they know that
the CIO's suggested changes don't come with a budget attached, so they're almost
impossible to implement.
I saw how this happened
during my years as the executive officer of a large military data center before
I retired from the Navy. The managers had been in place for years, and they
weren't particularly interested in ideas that some young officer fresh out of
the fleet might have about running data centers. Furthermore, they didn't have
the means to make changes while also doing the jobs they were paid to do.