Transparency and government aren't traditional bedfellows, especially for the federal government. Under President Barack Obama's administration, however, technology is steadily being applied to bring the two together. Earlier this week, Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, interviewed U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra at the Government 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C. The video of the interview, which touched on data sharing as well as government transparency, is embedded below:
This video is an embed from "Vivek Kundra and Ellen Miller at the Gov 2.0 Summit,"
courtesy of iDavied at Veoh.com.
During the conversation, Kundra and Miller discussed how the president's Transparency and Open Government directive is being implemented throughout the U.S. government's IT systems, using OpenID authentication at .gov websites and the challenges involved in integrating and upgrade legacy systems. These goals are all broadly part of the so-called "government 2.0" movement, the focus of the summit.
In terms of assessing the success of the U.S. CIO's efforts, Kundra pointed out that one of the principle obstacles to achieving more government transparency is aging infrastructure -- particularly legacy systems. One of the early successes in combining data with online transparency that he pointed to was an IT dashboard built using data from USAspending.gov, developed with support from the Sunlight Foundation. When Miller questioned the speed at which data was refreshed, Kundra emphasized that integrating legacy systems has to be taken into account. The crux of the issue is that government transparency will take time and considerable expense. Legacy systems work but aren't up to the stress of online integration, and agency computers that run on COBOL are still functional. Upgrading them for the sake of government transparency alone is an expensive and potentially contentious proposition, despite the open government directive.
Other government 2.0 initiatives
When queried about the reported $18 million dollar price tag for building Recovery.gov, Kundra said, "we have to recognize that it's never been done at this scale -- $787 billion dollars is being tracked at the national level: federal, state, local level."
Kundra also said, "We're moving to a cloud computing strategy across the board." What, precisely, this means has yet to be determined in terms of the use of public cloud computing providers like Amazon Web Services or Google Inc., or the further development of distributed systems, like those at the Department of Defense.
Kundra explained that he has been looking for ways to improve the speed of development of certain online initiatives without incurring significant costs. He provided as an example a blog that was about to be launched at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) -- internally, talks were conducted "about FISMA security, hosting at data centers and networking requirements," resulting in a bill that "came to $600 thousand dollars." At that point, he said, "we said wait a minute -- we could host this for free online." The blog, which has reached a million hits and is powered by Google's Blogger.com, can be found at www.tsa.gov/blog.
Regardless of the substantial barriers to achieving the administration's goals, it's clear that the nation's first CIO is committed to the spirit of the directive, in a decidedly technical way, given his view that, "It's very important that the government makes information publicly available in machine-readable format." Deputy U.S. chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin echoed the sentiment at the end of the summit, when he paraphrased a famous line from President John F. Kennedy's, stating, "Ask not what machine-readable data your country can give to you. Ask what innovative machine-readable docs or services you can give your country." The audience of government geeks heartily applauded.