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Former White House CIO: 'It's a big mistake for governments to build instead of buy'

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 17, 2015
Former White House CIO, and now head of Public Sector at Salesforce, Vivek Kundra, gives us his views on what it takes to get digital transformation in government right.

vivek kundra
This week at Dreamforce in San Francisco I was lucky enough to grab half an hour with Vivek Kundra, the former White House CIO and now Salesforce's head of public sector. I've interviewed Kundra a number of times and he always provides some excellent insights into the challenges and opportunities facing governments, when considering digital disruption.

Which is hardly surprising given that during his time in Washington DC he was responsible for some ground breaking policies and for putting the wheels in motion for the Federal government's digital agenda. For example, Kundra was behind the United States' government's cloud first policy, which has since been replicated (to varying degrees of success) in countries around the world, including the UK.

This time round I was keen to hear Kundra's thoughts on the buy versus build debate that is brewing in the public sector in the UK. It is a debate that will no doubt also hit US shores in coming months and years as the US Digital Service continues to grow its capabilities.

Essentially, it has been argued that the Government Digital Service in the UK has become somewhat of a software shop in the heart of Whitehall, where it has hired a significant number of resources and is writing too much of its own code. People think that this is worrying, given government's proven track record for not being able to manage technology well. Does it have the capabilities to do it?

We are now seeing similar models being replicated here in the United States and in countries like Australia.

But is building instead of buying the right approach? To be fair to GDS, it doesn't agree with the perception that it is building instead of buying, but it is a perception nonetheless. Kundra believes that if governments are building too much technology, instead of taking advantage of cloud computing and its associated benefits, they are making a “big mistake”.

He said:

The wrong approach in my mind is anyone that thinks that they are going to be able to future proof their investments – you just can't. One of the reasons is that when I was in government I realised a lot of government agencies unfortunately were becoming IT departments, in terms of how they're managing their infrastructure and technology. It's not their job to run a multi-million dollar IT department. The problem is that most governments end up buying technology the way they buy buildings. You can't buy in the technology world and assume things are going to be frozen in time for the next 50 years.

Anyone that tells you that doesn't know what they are talking about. That is one of the reasons I advanced the cloud first policy – you see what happens when government is managing everything, you can't hire the best engineers and compete with the best technology companies in the world. You're not going to be able to attract the talent and keep the talent on a long-term basis.

Are there cases where you are going to be able to do that? Absolutely. But as a broad policy I think it's a big mistake. The reason is that you have to ask yourself, how are you keeping up with the pace of innovation?

Kundra also hit out at the idea that government's could outsource everything – a favourite trick amongst many working in the public sector. He said:

You also want to be very careful of outsourcing everything too. You have systems integrators that have a record of 94% failure rate in these large-scale IT projects. I don't think one answer fits it all, but I think if you're trying to build it all, I know how that movie is going to end.

Interestingly, Kundra also picked up on the recent ousting of Tony Abbot in Australia, whom has now been replaced by Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister. Kundra knows Turnbull personally and insists that this will be a good thing for Australia because as a leader he understands the importance and the role of technology in government.

Kundra's comments are interesting given that in the UK, political leaders have shown very little support for the role of the Government Digital Service and don't seem to actively be involved in pushing the role digital could play in citizen interaction. He said that without this top-level support, digital transformation in the public sector is very challenging.

I'm also super excited about what's going on in Australia, their new Prime Minister is amazing. He's a great leader and understands technology. He launched their digital transformation office. To have that level of depth and understanding at the Prime Minister level, which is where you need it, is great. We were fortunate here because the President got technology and made it a priority.

I think its much more difficult if you don't have the top-down support. Especially when you are talking about this scale. You are talking about a multi-trillion dollar organisation. If it's not a priority from the President or the Prime Minister, it becomes really difficult.

The role of the State

Kundra also made an interesting point about the future role of government in terms of the services it provides to citizens. His primary point is that there are companies out there at the moment that are innovating at such a rapid rate and are making use of networked technologies and resources to provide services at scale, at a much lower cost than government can. But what does that mean for government?

Personally I find the idea a little disconcerting, and am not so optimistic about the possibility, but it's hard to ignore what's happening around us. Kundra said:

What we are seeing that is really, really interesting is that you have got these innovators coming from the edge and disrupting core government services that we haven't seen before. Think about when the cost of a Lyft or an Uber approaches or is lower than the cost of a bus. What does that do to a core government service that everyone always assumed would be government managed?

Think about what happens even to healthcare where through precision medicine now all of a sudden you can have a distributed network at a fraction of the cost than what the NHS is capable of providing. Or think about what happens when you think about education.

An interesting theory, right? But what does that mean for government? Should government departments be

protecting themselves from the disruption? Should they be innovating internally? Should they be competing? Kundra thinks that the public sector needs to embrace it and let it happen. He said:

My view around that is really simple, which was my body of work in the public sector – and it is to embrace the future rather than legislate the past. The natural response for a lot of these organisations has been to hardwire into law the status quo, versus being very deliberative and thoughtful about what it means for a community.

Is having a transportation network that is going to disrupt how this city lives, breaths and moves in a positive way? The answer is that it's better. It's a massive shift in power and what's great about that, in a lot of ways the State then becomes a platform where people convene, self-organise and build. It isn't this entity that is just regulating as the only function.

My take

As always, a fascinating conversation with Kundra. It's great to speak to someone in the private sector that actually understands the complexities and subtleties of technology in the public sector. Kundra also spoke at length about the possibilities of Salesforce's new Internet of Things Cloud for government, which is something he's personally very excited about, as he thinks it has many applications in this vertical.

There's challenges for IoT in government, most notably being able to tap into a number of systems of records that are siloed and the concerns around data privacy – but it's an interesting proposition nonetheless.

Kundra's views on buy versus build ring true to me. Although personally I do think the idea that governments are becoming software shops are concerns that are somewhat overblown. But they are concerns expressed by many. However, I'm 100% behind his idea that leaders need to be advocating digital transformation in the public sector. Grass-roots delivery can happen, but it's much easier with that top-down support.

Image credit - via Salesforce

Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner at time of writing and funded the author's travel to attend Dreamforce.

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