State CIOs Fear the Future as Their Federal Counterpart Resigns

Vivek Kundra brought state IT leaders into policy discussions at an unprecedented level. They’re nervous about who might take his place.
August 2011
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

With Vivek Kundra’s resignation, state CIOs may be losing one of their best friends in the federal government. Federal CIO Kundra steps down this month to take a fellowship at Harvard -- and state IT leaders are nervous about who might take his place.

For state CIOs, Kundra was a breath of fresh air. Thanks to a three-year stint as Washington, D.C.’s chief technology officer, Kundra understood the havoc that federal regulations could wreak if state and local stakeholders weren’t consulted. So he brought state IT leaders into policy discussions at an unprecedented level.

For instance, state CIOs give Kundra high marks for his handling of reporting requirements for federal stimulus funds. Kundra held multiple conference calls with state IT leaders to work out the details for tracking and reporting billions of dollars in stimulus grants, says Utah CIO Steve Fletcher, helping to ease what many feared would be an overwhelming task for state technology departments.

“He’s been a close ally with the states,” Fletcher says. “In my view, he’s done that better than anyone else in the past.”

Kundra’s departure could hamper progress on issues considered critical by state IT leaders. One of the biggest is rethinking the rules on how money is allocated for federally funded/state administered programs. Right now, federal dollars for those programs often come with strict guidelines on the type of computer hardware and software that may be purchased, as well as how that equipment may be used. CIOs say those rules may have made sense 20 years ago -- when computer systems generally supported a single program. But today they encourage the creation of stand-alone computer systems in an age when states are trying to save money by having single systems support multiple programs.

Kundra was the chief federal advocate for reforming cost-allocation rules, says North Carolina CIO Jerry Fralick, who is leading discussions with federal officials on a plan to implement better data standards in place of hardware and software specifications. Standardizing the information inside of computer systems -- rather than the systems themselves -- would give states more flexibility while ensuring the data can be easily shared between levels of government. That approach already is used by the U.S. Department of Justice, which requires all grant recipients to comply with a standard called the National Information Exchange Model. Extending that approach to all federal grant-making agencies would facilitate state/federal collaboration without handcuffing states on IT system design, Fralick contends.

“Vivek was real supportive,” he says. “The next person could decide it’s not a problem.”

There’s some speculation that President Obama will replace Kundra with a career federal CIO who has intimate knowledge of federal systems and agencies. Fralick and Fletcher argue the appointee needs a broader perspective. Both men served as federal agency CIOs before coming to state government, and they know the sort of tunnel vision that can develop within the federal bureaucracy.

The feds spend hundreds of billions of dollars on state-operated transportation, health care and social services programs, and meaningful state/federal cooperation on IT systems that deliver these programs is critical to effective use of that money. Luckily, Kundra’s counterpart, federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, also comes from state government and holds a similar view on state/federal collaboration. But the loss of Kundra still stings, and it has state CIOs watching the administration’s next move.

“Unless they put someone else in that position who is a champion on these issues,” says Fralick, “we’re going to take a step back.”