Federal CIO Vivek Kundra Heads to Harvard With IT Goals Unfulfilled

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 aboutopen-source andcloud-based computing, 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, thatIT 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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...