Performance Management for Sustainability

The way D.C.'s chief technology officer managed his organization points the way to the tools needed for energy efficient development.
March 11, 2009
Edward DeSeve
By G. Edward DeSeve  |  Contributor
G. Edward DeSeve is a GOVERNING contributor. He has served in senior positions in academia, government and the private sector.

There was no shortage of problems when Vivek Kundra became the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia. Kundra says that he feared that some of the District's technology-focused employees were "RIP": Retired In Place. Information technology project spending totaled about $1 billion, but lacked transparency and accountability. Projects routinely ran over budget and behind schedule. In many cases, the vendors running these projects were not penalized, but instead were awarded contract increases and extensions.

Kundra's remarkably successful approach to solving these problems was radical in its directness. He asked everyone working on the District's IT portfolio to do the right things and do them well; required project teams to report regularly on schedules, budgets and stakeholder satisfaction; called on employees to do their jobs professionally, efficiently and effectively; demanded that vendors deliver projects on time and on budget; and tapped the District's lawyers to enforce contracts when vendors didn't meet their commitments.

Kundra supplemented his approach with several key ingredients. He made sure he had the complete and unwavering support of Mayor Adrian Fenty. Kundra set up a combination network operations center and "stock market" to track the performance of both specific information technology projects and portfolio-wide spending. Kundra focused on top-level performance metrics that were stunningly simple: project satisfaction, progress against the schedule, and spending against the total budget. He also assigned analysts to watch over portfolios of projects and met with those analysts daily to understand in detail how well work was progressing.

Kundra used his performance data to systematically target and remediate underperforming employees, projects and vendors. Employees who were not keeping up were given specific action plans and timelines for improvement. Kundra subjected failing projects to what he calls "Cambridge-style debates": hour-long decision meetings attended by project staff, Kundra, Kundra's staff and the project sponsors from District government agencies. In these meetings, analysis led to decisions to either give projects specific turn-around targets and assign them SWAT teams made up of Kundra's tenacious staff, or to cut projects altogether.

This combination of support from the mayor, and detailed project performance information and remediation, provided Kundra with the tools he needed to get rid of underperforming staff, projects and vendors. As a result, he cut more than $25 million in wasteful IT spending. He reduced his office's headcount while improving its performance. He took on significant new projects in areas including procurement reform and Web 2.0 collaboration. And the sum total of this work has now earned Kundra a prized appointment by President Obama as the nation's first chief information officer.

You may be wondering how Kundra's accomplishments relate to state and local sustainability efforts. In the coming decades, trillions of dollars will be spent in the U.S. on sustainability. President Obama and Congress have made state and local spending on the green economy a centerpiece of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition, the president has set an ambitious goal of reducing the country's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Delivering on the nation's commitments will require that state and local governments manage projects focusing on improving energy efficiency, harnessing renewable energy sources and developing innovative ways to minimize our impact on the environment. Results from these efforts are expected to be both achieved quickly as well as have a lasting impact. It is required that all information about stimulus plan spending be reported via the new government transparency and accountability Website, The White House executive responsible for Vivek Kundra.

The combined challenges of lowering our dependence on foreign oil, minimizing climate change and reducing energy spending are too significant to be mismanaged. Sustainability must be managed effectively by doing the right things and doing them well. Drawing on the successful methods that Kundra employed in the District, this means:

o Focus on portfolio performance: Treat your sustainability program as a portfolio of assets. Be determined about understanding what is working and what is failing. Improve the performance of your portfolio using the basic tools of management: keep an eye on the fundamentals, communicate clear expectations, and utilize your entire array of resources in an effective, coordinated way. Ultimately, you can adopt sustainability-focused technologies that enable you to understand the sustainability-related performance of your portfolio and its assets, such as your facilities portfolio and the buildings within it, or your fleet and its vehicles.

o Monitor implementation metrics closely. Gain visibility into every project's budget, schedule and customer satisfaction. Also understand the data required for reporting on the use of funds, such as the number of jobs being created.

o Set and track sustainability-related metrics. Have a small but concentrated set of key performance indicators about overall portfolio sustainability performance such as energy cost, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, what is the Energy Star rating for your buildings, or their equivalent carbon dioxide (ECO2)? Make this data widely available through management dashboards and public reporting.

o Be strong and get the support you need. Make sure you have the courage to deliver on your commitments -- and take responsibility for your actions. At the same time, gain the support of champions who will stand behind you, believe in your ability to get things done, and demonstrate that there is the political will needed to enact your changes.

o Innovate once the fundamentals are sound. Find new ways to improve the success of projects and enhance sustainability in your community: build new networks of relationships, establish share-in savings programs and create exciting competitions for constituents that drive new solutions. For example, you can implement recycling programs such as Recyclebank, a service that rewards residents who recycle with coupons.

Simply put, sustainable management is the key to managing sustainability efforts. Vivek Kundra's success with improving technology management shows that effective management fundamentals can have a significant impact on an organization's operations. There is no reason not to take the same approach to managing sustainability. And there is no reason not to expect the same excellent results.