Thoughts on the future of the US CIO, from capabilities to goals

vanroekel

This weekend, ZDNet columnist Mike Krigsman asked me what I thought of the tenure of United States chief information officer Steven VanRoekel and, more broadly, what I thought of the role and meaning of the position in general. Here’s VanRoekel’s statement to the press via Federal News Radio:

“When taking the job of U.S. chief information officer, my goal was to help move federal IT forward into the 21st Century and to bring technology and innovation to bear to improve IT effectiveness and efficiency. I am proud of the work and the legacy we will leave behind, from launching PortfolioStat to drive a new approach to IT management, the government’s landmark open data policy to drive economic value, the work we did to shape the mobile ecosystem and cloud computing, and the culmination of our work in the launch of the new Digital Service, we have made incredible strides that will benefit Americans today and into the future,” VanRoekel said in a statement. “So it is with that same spirit of bringing innovation and technology to bear to solve our most difficult problems, that I am excited to join USAID’s leadership to help stop the Ebola outbreak. Technology is not the solution to this extremely difficult task but it will be a part of the solution and I look forward to partnering with our federal agencies, non-profit organizations and private sector tech communities to help accelerate this effort.”

Here’s the part of what I told Krigsman that ended up being published, with added hyperlinks for context:

As US CIO, Steven VanRoekel was a champion of many initiatives that improved how technology supports the mission of the United States government. He launched an ambitious digital government strategy that moved further towards making open data the default in government, the launch of the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and the successful Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and improved management of some $80 billion dollars in annual federal technology spending through PortfolioStat.

As was true for his predecessor, he was unable to create fundamental changes in the system he inherited. Individual agencies still have accountability for how money is spent and how projects are managed. The nation continues to see too many government IT projects that are over-budget, don’t work well, and use contractors with a core competency in getting contracts rather than building what is needed.

The U.S. has been unable or unwilling to reorganize and fundamentally reform how the federal government supports its missions using technology, including its relationship to incumbent vendors who fall short of efficient delivery using cutting-edge tech. The 113th Congress has had opportunities to craft legislative vehicles to improve procurement and the power of agency CIOs but has yet to pass FITARA or RFP-IT. In addition, too many projects still look like traditional enterprise software rather than consumer-facing tools, so we have a long way to go to achieve the objectives of the digital playbook VanRoekel introduced.

There are great projects, public servants and pockets of innovation through the federal government, but culture, hiring, procurement, and human resources remain serious barriers that continue to result in IT failures. The next U.S. CIO must be a leader in all respects, leading by example, inspiring, and having political skill. It’s a difficult job and one for which it is hard to attract world-class talent.

We need a fundamental shift in the system rather than significant tweaks, in areas such as open source and using the new Digital Service as a tool to drive change. The next US CIO must have experience managing multi-billion dollar budgets and be willing to pull the plug on wasteful or mismanaged projects that serve the needs of three years ago, not the future.

U.S. publishes new “Open Data Action Plan,” announces new data releases

On the one year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s historic executive order to open up more government data, U.S. chief information officer Steven VanRoekel and U.S. chief technology officer Todd Park described “continued progress and plans for open government data” at the WhiteHouse.gov blog:

Freely available data from the U.S. government is an important national resource, serving as fuel for entrepreneurship, innovation, scientific discovery, and economic growth. Making information about government operations more readily available and useful is also core to the promise of a more efficient and transparent government. This initiative is a key component of the President’s Management Agenda and our efforts to ensure the government is acting as an engine to expand economic growth and opportunity for all Americans. The Administration is committed to driving further progress in this area, including by designating Open Data as one of our key Cross-Agency Priority Goals.

Over the past few years, the Administration has launched a number of Open Data Initiatives aimed at scaling up open data efforts across the Health, Energy, Climate, Education, Finance, Public Safety, and Global Development sectors. The White House has also launched Project Open Data, designed to share best practices, examples, and software code to assist federal agencies with opening data. These efforts have helped unlock troves of valuable data—that taxpayers have already paid for—and are making these resources more open and accessible to innovators and the public.

Other countries are also opening up their data. In June 2013, President Obama and other G7 leaders endorsed the Open Data Charter, in which the United States committed to publish a roadmap for our nation’s approach to releasing and improving government data for the public. Building upon the Administration’s Open Data progress, and in fulfillment of the Open Data Charter, today we are excited to release the U.S. Open Data Action Plan.

The new Open Data Action Plan (which was, ironically, released as a glossy PDF*, as opposed to a more machine-readable format) details a number of significant steps, including:

  • Many releases of new data and improved access to existing databases. These include more climate data, adding an API to Smithsonian artwork and the Small Business Administration’s database of suppliers and making data available for re-use. *Late in the day, with a “thanks to the open data community for their vigilance,” The White House posted the list of “high value data sets” in the plan as a .CSV.
  • A roadmap with deadlines for the release of these datasets over the course of 2014-2015. Some data releases are already online, like Medicare physician payment data. I’ve created an online spreadsheet that should act as a dashboard for U.S. National Open Data Action Plan Deadlines.
  • A policy that “new data sets will be prioritized for release based on public feedback.
  • New open data projects at federal agencies, each of which will be led by a Presidential Innovation Fellow. According to the plan, the agencies will include NOAA, the Census Bureau, NASA, IRS, Interior, Labor, Energy and HHS.

Compliance with the executive order on open data has been mixed, as the Sunlight Foundation detailed last December. While all executive branch agencies were required to develop a machine-readable catalog of their open data at [department].gov/data.json  and stand up /developer pages, it took until February 2014 for all Cabinet agencies to publish their open data inventories. (The government shutdown was a factor in the delay.)

The federal government’s progress on this open data action plan is likely to be similar, much as it has been for the past five years under the Obama administration: variable across agencies, with delays in publishing, issues in quality and carve outs for national security, particularly with respect to defense and intelligence agencies. That said, progress is progress: many of the open data releases detailed in the plan have already occurred.

If the American people, press, Congress and public worldwide wish to see whether the administration is following through on some of its transparency promises, they can do so by visiting agency websites and the federal open data repository, Data.gov, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary next week.

Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg is fond of quoting William Edwards Deming: “In God we trust. All others bring data.” Given historic lows in trust in government, the only way the Obama administration will make progress on that front is if they actually release more of it.

[Image Credit: Eric Fischer/Flickr]