The terror of transparency

With IT Dashboard, federal CIO Vivek Kundra may have set an extraordinary precedent that will compel IT managers everywhere to improve visibility into what they're doing

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Vivek Kundra, the federal government's first official CIO, has done the unthinkable. He has opened a window on how the $74 billion federal IT budget is performing, with detail on hundreds of IT investments, including timelines, budget details, and the contractors employed.

If you haven't seen the IT Dashboard unveiled by Kundra last week, check it out. The Flash work alone will knock your socks off. The Dashboard site combines project portfolio management with basic data visualization and a dab of analytics. And just think: Kundra (a 2008 InfoWorld CTO 25 award winner) has been on the job for only a couple of months. This guy seems bound and determined to make good on promises of transparency. In a video Q&A after the announcement, Kundra said that IT Dashboard is just "the first step to drive the government to be more transparent and open."

[ For sound advice on how to improve IT's image in the organization, check out Dan Tynan's classic article, "Use metrics to prove your IT project's worth." ]

If you were head of any agency that had mismanaged its overall budget (of which the IT budget is typically just a small part), you'd have to wonder: Is Vivek Kundra coming for me? Probably so. The IT Dashboard URL is it.usaspending.gov, which is very likely the first of many Dashboard domains within USAspending.gov, a searchable Web version of the entire federal budget. Today IT; tomorrow the world.

What's interesting to me about IT Dashboard is that enterprise IT seldom has this sort of visibility into itself, let alone the ability to offer such a view to, say, the business side. Does Kundra's initiative signal a cultural shift toward transparency that will also affect business? Almost as impressive as the Dashboard is the fact that federal agencies are now obliged to report on the progress of their IT projects every month rather than once a year. Maybe we really are entering a new era of accountability.

Of course, assessments of success or failure depend on how you measure them -- and on who's doing the measuring. The Dashboard has three possible performance ratings: normal, needs attention, and significant concerns (I assume the latter really means "epic fail"). The catch is that these ratings have been provided by agency CIOs themselves.

Does the fact that 63 percent of Veterans Affairs projects have significant concerns really mean the VA's IT problems are so much worse than those of the Department of Education, where only 8 percent of projects fall in that dismal category? Or is the CIO of the VA simply more honest? By the same token, if you're a new CIO, you have every motivation to flag problems with projects that preceded you and to look kindly on the anything you've initiated yourself.

What matters far more, of course, is the assessment of people who use these systems. In the postlaunch Q&A, Kundra said this will be incorporated into future iterations of the platform.

Now there's a scary thought. Over the years, in survey after survey, the proportion of IT projects rated as successful by stakeholders always seems to hover in the 25 to 30 percent range. That's a pretty ugly dashboard. Is transparency coming for you?