Focus on customers, says former White House CIO Vivek Kundra

By David Donaldson

Tuesday March 31, 2015

Vivek Kundra
Vivek Kundra

Governments should focus less on data management systems and more on customer-focused delivery, argues Vivek Kundra, former chief information officer to United States President Barack Obama.

Kundra, currently executive vice president at Salesforce, last week completed a whirlwind tour of Australia as part of the launch of the Commonwealth government’s new Digital Transformation Office.

He told The Mandarin there is a “big transition” happening in technology from investing in “systems of record” to the types of user-friendly interfaces more common in the private sector.

“If you look at most governments, they’re spending a lot of money on what I call systems of record — ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems, supply chains, systems centred on databases and infrastructure — yet systems in the everyday lives of citizens, their customers, are far more sophisticated,” Kundra said.

“They can use their mobile device to book a reservation to their favourite restaurant, catch a plane anywhere on the planet, or have a car pick them up and drop them off without exchanging any cash. So how do you close that technology gap when in everyday life citizens have an app for everything, yet when they deal with their government they have to hold on the phone, submit a paper form, or wait in a long line?

“That is a challenge for public sector leaders today. Managing and responding to citizens’ expectations that have been permanently reset by the private sector.”

One example of good practice he cites is ServiceNSW, “where they’ve been able to put the citizen at the heart of everything they do”:

“What they’ve done is fundamentally recreate the relationship between citizens and their government. They’ve been able to not only restore trust, but they’ve seen a 99% customer satisfaction rating, which companies would kill for,” he says.

“Everybody’s still focused on that 1970s-era technology when the reality is you can build systems and abstract them through open APIs and cloud platforms that weren’t possible a decade ago … You can create a citizen service centre that will allow you to create open APIs on these legacy systems.

“It doesn’t necessarily require a billion dollars and a decade-long modernisation effort to improve your citizen experience, and that’s exactly what ServiceNSW did.” ServiceNSW is supported by the Salesforce service cloud.

Leadership is the most important ingredient in implementing big technological change, Kundra argues. Part of leadership is knowing when to crack down on non-performing projects.

“A lot of agencies leaders will continue to throw good money after bad, continuing to invest in IT projects that don’t deliver value.”

The Federal IT Dashboard, in which Kundra played an instrumental role, publicly displays information about who is in charge of government IT projects, as well as their cost, schedule and performance. Within six months of launching the Dashboard, “we were able to save US$3 billion” he says, as transparency enabled better reviewing processes.

“A lot of agencies’ leaders will continue to throw good money after bad, continuing to invest in IT projects that don’t deliver value. One of the things that leaders across agencies can do across all IT projects is do a line-by-line review of what was promised when the budget was approved, see if they deliver or not, and are you getting customer-facing functionality, every 90 days.

“If they’re not, maybe the project should be terminated, or maybe you need to bring in new technology companies to implement this project. So I think you’ve got to be able to recognise that as a public leader your duty is to respond to your customers, your citizens.

“It’s about recognising that were moving away from a world of systems of record to a world of systems of intelligence, where citizens expect their interactions with government to be as simple and frictionless as ordering a car to pick you up or making a reservation. That is the part that agency leaders can do, which is pivot and redeploy capital to what really needs to happen.”

He also helped to open up government data in the United States through the portal, which started with 47 data sets and is now past 400,000. That platform has allowed for the creation of apps for all sorts of services, such as giving citizens instant access to comparative information about a hospital’s mortality rate and costs as they walk in the door, or up-to-date data for parents on toys recently recalled or associated with injuries to children.

He also says it’s important to recognise “you don’t need to boil the ocean” — sometimes it’s better to start small and scale up.

We’re only just starting to see the impact of things like predictive interfaces, algorithms and artificial intelligence on public services, thinks Kundra. In the US, the White House has helped to bring new ideas into IT through its technology and innovation fellowship, which encourages Silicon Valley innovators to spend time in government helping improve services.

“Technology will play a central role in transforming everything from education to healthcare. There’s simple questions you could ask and make sure the public service answers these: why is it that the best classroom is not as compelling as the best videogame on the planet? Why are we not investing in those types of areas?

“I believe that under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull we are going to see a fundamental shift in terms of putting the citizen at the heart of government operations.”

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