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Let Vivek Kundra Do His Job

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, March 15 2009

In December 2007, the then-Chief Technology Officer of Washington, DC, Vivek Kundra, testified before a committee of the city council on "Theft and Fraud Prevention in District Government Agencies." He focused on steps his office had taken to create "a culture of accountability and innovation."

Kundra, as readers of this blog know, is currently on leave from his new post as federal Chief Information Officer, after an FBI investigation resulted in the arrest last Thursday of a mid-level staffer from the DC Office of the CTO (OCTO) on corruption charges. Kundra is, according to all reports, not implicated in the case, and the FBI affidavit outlining the government's evidence makes no mention of him. A spokesman for DC Mayor Adrian Fenty has said she is "very confident" Kundra is not a target of the FBI's investigation. Indeed, had he actually been a target, presumably the FBI would have raised concerns during the Administration's vetting process. Still, the tech press and blogosphere has been rife with speculation that Kundra's job as CIO could be ruined by this news.

We here at techPresident hope that is not the case. For apart from Kundra's innovative approach to opening up government data, which we've covered here in some depth, he also brings a fresh, web-savvy perspective to the problem of making government more honest and effective. Listen to some of the things he said in 2007 in his testimony on theft and fraud prevention:

"Innovation not only solves problems, it’s one of the best deterrents to corruption. Accountability and innovation keep processes, and personnel, from becoming so entrenched that an individual can beat the system by knowing every process, and every person, down to the tiniest detail and then exploiting them."

"....Central to our culture of innovation is regular 'TechStat' sessions. In these sessions, modeled on the citywide CapStat sessions, we use an interdisciplinary team to delve into particular programs and major problems. By bringing together representatives from the program, procurement, finance, HR, and upper management, we’re finding solutions to problems and ways to operate more efficiently and effectively. TechStat also helps deter fraud by probing every program on a regular basis, and often changing processes. So someone who wants exploit weaknesses in a process will know up front that the process can change at any time, foiling the scheme and maybe exposing it."

"...I recognize that we can’t change people’s intent to do harm. But we can do our best to prevent the bad from entering our workforce. We can help the good to report the bad so we detect fraud early. We can deter the in-between from temptation through training and a culture of transparency, accountability, and innovation.

It appears, based on the FBI's affidavit, that Yusuf Acar, an IT security specialist at OCTO since 2004, nevertheless allegedly found ways around these kinds of measures, overbilling the city for software purchases and creating fraudulent time sheets for "ghost" employees.

Well, no system of governance can repeal the coarser parts of human nature, and no matter how transparent or innovative we make government, we are undoubtedly going to still have scandals. Indeed, given how much the Obama Administration is staking on new transparency measures, like the detailed online reporting systems being planned for Recovery.gov, the more we're probably going to hear about waste, fraud and abuse in government contracting.

President Obama is promising that local citizens will be able to track whether a particular government grant that was supposed to create X jobs actually produces, and to report back on Recovery.gov to hold everyone accountable for those results. In effect, the Obama Administration is on a collision course with business as usual, and the results are bound to be messy.

But that's no reason for the Administration to back away from its plans. Until last Thursday, those plans clearly included putting Kundra in charge of a major overhaul in how government uses data and technology to become more open, efficient and accountable. Every day that he is not allowed to do his job is another day the Administration loses in being able to fulfill its ambitious and worthwhile promises to make government more transparent. Unless there is evidence that Kundra was somehow involved in or responsible for Acar's alleged crimes--and it appears there is none--his leave ought to be ended as soon as possible. After all, we believe people are innocent until they're proven guilty, right?

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