Vivek Kundra and some lessons learnt about tech in gov

Last night I heard Vivek Kundra speak about innovation, technology and Gov 2.0 at a dinner hosted by AIIA and Salesforce. It was a fascinating talk in that it exceeded my expectations significantly.

I had reasonable expectations that his experience as CIO of the US Federal Government and his insights to the US open government agenda would be interesting, but he also talked about the “epic war between the status quo and progress”, the inertia in government, the major shift in power from gov to the people, how tech in enabling a new form of democracy, the need to hire great people (and get rid of those not on board) and how issues like SOPA demonstrate that the people can overturn traditional power broker agendas through grassroots efforts.

He also spoke about the need to reform gov IT procurement practices to demand good services from the sector, to put them on notice and to engage smaller innovative players in the market. It was fascinating to see someone who was so senior in government take that strong a stance, but it makes sense. Government is the number one purchaser of tech, so how it engages the market has a profound impact. And as a huge customer, government should be able to demand the best possible service. At the same time, without great people internally who are empowered and incentivised, it’s hard to drive progress.

When asked how to actually drive tech innovation in government, policy, procurement and workforce reforms were very important, but fundamentally workforce. Vivek said that there needs to be rigour in hiring practices, a culture of getting the best people into the public service, a culture that rejects blockers and gets rid of those who don’t get on board with progress.

Some comments from Vivek that I thought useful and thought provoking (as captured by live tweeting on #gov2au from the evening):

  • The danger is to not move, to play safe. It’s vital to move and be thoughtful but bold to use the opportunity.
  • Often Gov collaboration is stalled by an us vs them attitude. This needs to be overcome.
  • It is now easier to innovate and compete due to new tech, and those that innovate dominate, as they fill the space.
  • Indian gov drove aggressive FOI changes, results of the transformation was short term pushback and issues, but longer term transparency and improvement of gov.
  • NBN is an enormous and exciting opportunity for Australia and for open government and Australia can play a leadership role.

I have to say, it was very interesting and stimulating. It kicked off some great discussions in the group too.

I have seen a few people respond to the Vivek coverage quite negatively. There is, of course, a lot of hype and fluff out there around Gov 2.0 and “cloud”, but it doesn’t mean you don’t listen critically, research what people say and come to your own conclusions. I am constantly surprised by people who insist on loudly voicing blatant cynicism, pessimism and general negativity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this establishes a narrative that undermines the (often) valid and good points they are trying to make, whilst making it harder for other people to get actually get things done.

I would like to put out there that the more leadership shown by everyone in the tech community, especially the Gov 2.0 community and the media, the better a chance we all have of achieving great things.

Be the change you want to see, and all that :)

I highly recommend people check out Vivek’s talk from the AIIA Summit on Cloud. It was a good example of thought leadership by a person who has actually got things done, a change agent who has made a difference. I’ve been told you should be able to watch it and all the summit talks online here tonight.

Thank you to Loretta form AIIA and Phil from Salesforce for agreeing to have Vivek speak to the Gov 2.0 community. A big thanks to Vivek too, it was great to meet you :) People can follow Vivek on @vivekkundra on Twitter.

It is worth mentioning that neither the AIIA nor Salesforce asked for anything in return for doing a Gov 2.0 discussion with Vivek, Salesforce paid for the dinner after the talk, and in the interview below I spoke with Vivek off the cuff without any direction from AIIA or Salesforce.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNMj4jd3q88[/youtube]

TRANSCRIPT

Pia: So I’m here with Vivek Kundra, he’s here in Australia touring around and talking to a lot of people and I just thought I’d take the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions for the Gov 2.0 community peeps out there, around Australia.

So, hi, welcome to Australia.

Vivek: Thanks for chatting with me, I appreciate it.

Pia: Yeah, that’s cool. Can you just give us a bit of an overview about your ideas on driving tech innovation in government. What you see to be the core things you need to do?

Vivek: Well obviously it always starts with the people and one of the most important things that needs to happen in government, around the world, is they need to be able to hire the right kind of people to drive innovation and be change agents. You can’t legislate and you can’t essentially mandate innovation itself so it starts with that.

Secondly I think you need need bold leadership. If you look at what President Obama did, he made technology a central part of how his administration was going to achieve some of the policy objectives that he had set out.

And the third, you need to be able to distrupt the status quo by making sure that you have a culture that celebrates failure. That doesn’t actually go out there and punish those that are at the bleeding edge.

Pia: And, I mean, if you’ve got that leadership  at the top level and you’ve got your, you’ll always have your enthusiastic geeks at the grassroots level, how do you drive that change in that rather large middle level?

Vivek: I should think it’s easier if you have a number of people on the front lines. The geeks kinda banding together trying to find a new way. But you’ve got to be able to make sure is that the middle management, unfortunately a lot of times you have people who are incentivised by the number of dollars that they manage and the number of years they’ve been in the job and that’s where from a political leadership perspective it’s very very important to make sure that you’re reaching out and embracing those that are on the front lines that understand the issues and understand the innovation that must be driven, and frankly reward those managers that are going to support, encourage and embrace that notion and that culture and those people.

At the same time the reality is, and we don’t talk about this often, we also have to be able to make the hard choices. If there are managers or people that are getting in the way, the Dr No’s, they are basically in deleriction of their duty. And what I mean by that is that’s not what the people of a country expect of their government. They’re basically putting their personal interests over the interests of the people.

Pia: OK, and finally ‘cos we don’t have a lot of time, what are your observations and thoughts about what is happening in Australia and some of the opportunities and challenges for Australia? Seeing you’re here and seeing what’s going on.

Vivek: Well I’m actually very excited. I think it’s amazing country with an entrepreneurial culture, to the number of meetings I’ve had and meeting people like you who are doing some amazing work in the public sector, whether it’s been public participation, fundamentally rethinking what a modern democracy looks like.

I’ve also seen some of the really really bold steps that are being taken to invest in strategic infrastructure. So the National Broadband Network is one example. You look at what’s happening as far as the government’s concerned. You’re seeing some of these technologies come into the goveernment.

But the fear I have is that you want to make sure you continue on that trajectory. It’s very easy for those people in the government who want to preserve the status quo to win out. And I think there is an epic battle going on between the past and the future. And it’s really really important that, from a policy perspective, that there are appropriate incentives for those who are architecting the future, to be the ones that are driving the country.

Pia: And do you think that epic battle presents a bit of a power shift from small groups of people to the broader community to engage…

Vivek: Well absolutely, it’s clear. We see it every day, whether it’s in Australia or anywhere else in the world. Therre is this shift in power from a few government officials behind closed doors to the masses, it’s real. And technologies that didn’t exist before exist today that have made this possible in terms of the very structures that are needed.

So the ability for anyone with a front row seat to their government with a mobile device. That’s amazing! We don’t think about it, we take it for granted, but now every citizen can be a co-creator. Every citizen can be a watchdog and hold their government accountable. Every citizen can actually go out there and be part of the digital public square and that is what I think is super exciting about the time we are living in.

Pia: Yep, sure. Well thank you very much.

Vivek: Thank you.

Pia: And I look forward to next time you come to Australia.

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4 Responses to Vivek Kundra and some lessons learnt about tech in gov

  1. Gavin Tapp says:

    Hi Pia, Thanks for recording this – good to hear these perspectives. Also a good point about removing the ‘Dr No’ people.

  2. Terry says:

    Hi Pia,

    I too was significantly surprised by Vivek’s speech as it exceeded my expectations. He was quite inspirational which wasn’t what I was expecting from having read a lot of his stuff over the years,and his points about the ‘democratisation of the net’ whilst not new were put passionately and well made.
    Thanks to you for organising this, it was a great chance to meet and discuss issues with a person who has the runs on the board and is happy to give an opinion.

  3. Brian Asimw says:

    I too went to see and listen to Vivek at the AIIA sponsored Cloud briefing at the NCC. I too found Vivek to be engaging, enthralling and erudite. The man has been there, done that and, indeed, got the t-shirt.

    But…and there’s always a “but”, did Vivek say anything different to what many people are already thinking?? Not in the private sector I’m sure.

    Take for instance the comment: “It was fascinating to see someone who was so senior in government take that strong a stance, but it makes sense.” when referring to engagement with industry players and niche innovators. The same could be said of the US federal government IT projects dashboard and the impact on projects that are massively over-budget and suffering from huge delays.

    Such a statement implies we have no-one so senior in Australian government that would take such a strong stance. Do we??

    What is stopping Australian Government ICT representatives from taking such a stance??

    Vivek’s dialogue was certainly refreshing but reiterated much that is already known…just not stated publicly. Australian Government ICT needs to be opened up to full scrutiny and make use of private sector best practices. No longer can it be hidden behind a thin veil of security, governance and compliance excuses.

  4. Emily Jarvis says:

    Hi, I am the producer of a radio show the Dorobek Insider which airs on GovLoop. The site is home to roughly 55,000 federal, state and local government employees and contractors in the US.

    We saw your interview with Vivek Kundra and would love to have you on the show to talk about that experience and your views on free software.

    We could do the interview over the phone or Skype.

    Please contact me if you are interested. emily@govloop.com

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