Obama’s “Nonks” Gone Wild

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Vivek Kundra is a rock star.

At least at the annual Personal Democracy Forum conference. On Tuesday morning, Kundra, the chief information officer of the Obama administration, opened the second day of this gathering of digital techies by unveiling a new dashboard that taxpayers can use to track the federal government’s spending on information technology. The crowd went wild. They greeted his announcement with a standing ovation.

You can go to Data.gov to see this new tool, which will allow you to obtain and mash data about IT programs across the federal government. For example, as Kundra said, you could check out “how much the US Department of Agriculture spends on information technology projects and what is the health of those projects.” You can see who’s getting the IT contracts, assess the performance of those contracts, and provide feedback to the CIOs of these agencies.

Not your idea of a hot time? Okay. But as Kundra pointed out, the US government spends about $70 billion a year on IT, and much of this money gets wasted on lousy IT. He noted that a 1994 report found that billions of dollars in federal IT investments went down the drain. And he referred to a 2008 report that concluded that $30 billion in IT programs were in trouble. That report, Kundra griped, didn’t even provide a list of the specific IT programs in jeopardy. And, he said, big federal IT programs often take 18 months to two years to get off the launching pad, but by then the technology has changed and outpaced the project’s original specs. Remember those FBI computers?

So getting IT right in the federal government is a big deal. By putting all this data on line, Kundra is inviting outside-the-government experts to vet what is happening within the government. He’s also applying principles of accountability and transparency to this uber-wonky aspect of governance. Kundra also noted that CIOs in federal agencies have been ordered to inspect every single IT investment. And when he declared that the IT dashboard has been released in beta form–signaling that the government would seek input from users on how to improve it–the PDF audience exploded in applause.

Kundra was introduced to the conference by Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. Newmark said he was enthusiastic about Washington these days, noting that the government was now in the hands of nerds, wonks, and hybrids he calls “nonks” Kundra may be the top nonk of the administration. When Kundra said, “This is a new approach to advancing technology in government,” the hundreds of nonks in the room smiled and nodded approvingly. If this jazzes them so much, non-nonks should be heartened.

This was first posted at CQPolitics.com. You can follow David Corn’s postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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