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Bringing Washington's technology into 21st century

By Vivek Kundra, Special to CNN
  • Vivek Kundra says improving government's information technology will help win future
  • U.S. is changing how it manages its IT to increase transparency, accountability, he says
  • IT Dashboard is new site where citizens can monitor every IT project in federal government
  • Kundra: Innovations include new mobile apps, access to health records for veterans

Editor's note: Vivek Kundra is the federal chief information officer at the White House. He will be speaking about the Obama administration's role in innovation and infrastructure at The Economist's Ideas Economy: Intelligent Infrastructure event in New York on Wednesday and Thursday.

Washington (CNN) -- Last month, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama talked about winning the future. One way in which we can help win the future is by closing the technology gap between the government and private sector -- and leveraging recent advances in information technology to serve the American people better.

Think about our everyday lives. You can launch your own website in seconds. A small business owner can manage payroll online. A grandmother can share pictures of her grandchildren with family across the world. But in the government, it can take years and cost millions of dollars to deploy technology.

It's not due to a lack of investment. In fact, the federal government is the largest purchaser of IT goods and services in the world. In 2010 alone, we spent nearly $80 billion on IT and have spent more than $600 billion over the past decade.

To get a better return on this investment for the American people, we have fundamentally altered the way we manage the federal government's IT projects -- using transparency to shed light on government operations and to hold government managers accountable for results.

We launched the IT Dashboard, a website where the American people can monitor every IT project in the federal government as easily as they can their personal investment portfolios. If a project is over budget, or behind schedule, the Dashboard tells you so.

We're now using the IT Dashboard to power in-depth accountability reviews to turn around, terminate or halt underperforming IT projects. So far, these reviews have resulted in overall budget reductions of more than $3 billion and cut the time for delivery of a needed functionality from two to three years down to an average of eight months. This means faster adoption of new biometric technologies for law enforcement investigations and accelerated access to cargo inspection systems for Border Control agents.

To crack down on redundant investment, we embarked upon the largest data center consolidation effort in history and will eliminate more than 800 federal government data centers by 2015.

But it is not enough to manage our existing technology investments effectively. Too often, federal agencies rely on custom and proprietary legacy technologies. To close the technology gap, we must embrace innovative technologies such as cloud computing, which provides access to shared computing resources much in the same way public utilities provide access to water and electricity, to enable better service at a lower cost.

This is why we instituted a "cloud first" policy that directs each federal agency to move three technology services (such as e-mail) to the cloud within the next 18 months. We're already seeing results. The Department of Agriculture is migrating 120,000 e-mail users across 5,000 locations to the cloud, saving $27 million over five years. Overall, based on our estimates, up to $20 billion of annual federal IT spending could potentially be migrated to cloud computing solutions.

Our ultimate goal in closing the IT gap is to improve the delivery of government services to the American people. We're already seeing how the effective use of innovative technologies can directly affect veterans, students and potential citizens:

• To make it easier for the public to access government services anywhere, anytime, we launched more than 100 mobile apps. They include an app that gives consumers instant information on safety recalls of products such as toys and food, and an app that provides travelers with around-the-clock access to wait times at airport security lines.

• To help veterans and Medicare beneficiaries, we created the "Blue Button" Personal Health Record. This new feature on the My HealtheVet and websites allows users easily to access and download their personal health records anytime, anywhere. Having control of this information enables users to share this data with health care providers, caregivers and others they trust.

• To demystify the citizenship application process for potential citizens, we put online a case tracking system that provides prospective citizens a way to track the status of their immigration case just by entering a number, as they would a FedEx shipment.

These are but a few examples. More work lies ahead, but by embracing innovative technologies, eliminating redundant investment and intervening to turn around troubled projects, we can leverage the power of information technology to help win the future. You can find out more about our efforts to make technology work better for the American people in our IT reform plan.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Vivek Kundra.