An Open Letter to Federal CIO Vivek Kundra
Jul 19, 2011 Clay Johnson

Dear Vivek,

I've worked with you from the outside for several years now -- from when you were doing Apps for Democracy here in the District, to launching Apps for America and Design for America in tandem with the great resource you built called Data.gov. At Sunlight, I was thrilled to watch you launch data.gov, the IT Dashboard, and make needed improvements to USASpending.gov. From my view outside and yours inside, I think we've both come to the same conclusion -- our procurement system is broken and it's actually killing America.

It's why I wasn't too sad, and didn't step up to "Save the Data" alongside my Sunlight compatriots. It's not because those programs aren't valuable, but rather because they shouldn't cost so much. While not part of the E-Government fund, just take a look at Recovery.gov's price tag and you have to cringe: outside of government, these things don't cost that much and they tend to work much better. When we at Sunlight tried to bid on Recovery.gov we were quickly told not to bother -- that we, a community of at the time about 800 developers, weren't even eligible to apply. If we were to have a chance at even working on the project, we'd have to pay the tolls to the Alliant Governmentwide contracting cartel which consists of just a handful of giant corporations. Federal IT needs to be put into overdrive to build a more open, honest, and accessible government but that's not going to happen with the status quo.

This isn't right, it's not fair, and more than that: it's breaking us. It's widening the gap between the technology that government has to operate, and what people expect. Given time it will cause people's faith in government to collapse more than it already has. Today that gap represents itself with the eyes rolling when people have to deal with government data or government websites. But as that gap grows, without technology that the people outside the government take for granted, government itself will become the equivalent of an infant in a world of mature adults. It will be the governmental consequence of Moore's Law -- that gap is growing exponentially while Government's access to it and to the people that understand it is often shrinking. The status quo isn't just making things difficult, it's asphyxiating government's ability to serve.

You and I both know that this isn't just a "big problem," but often it's the problem. It's the problem that makes the Air Conditioners in Afghanistan cost more than NASA's entire budget, and it's the problem that makes it so WhiteHouse.gov cost about 10x what BarackObama.com did. It's the reason healthcare costs more than it should, and it's the reason CityTime costs close to the value of the entire AppStore economy. It's a giant, secret tax that the taxpayers are handing over to a select few contractors, and it's a problem that needs to get solved.

As you're packing your desk, settling your affairs, and preparing to move to Cambridge I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your service to us. You've done a great job and probably more than we could have ever asked. From where I sit, you and your team have done more to open up government than anyone else could have expected. You don't just deserve a pat on the back, you deserve a medal. So Thank You.

As you think about what to do next, please consider starting an organization to fix the problem of procurement. I think that from the outside you'll find allies on both sides of the aisle who want to help you solve this problem. You'll find allies all across America too who, when they hear about the problems of procurement, want these problems solved. As long as you stay out of Reston, you should find few people interested in maintaining the status quo of the FAR. Please, when you say that there's an IT Cartel, also say that when you're outside, you'll be willing to step up and lead the charge from the outside to help change it. It's only someone that has the experience that you've acquired in pushing these changes from the inside that can lead the charge from the outside to do it.

If you do choose to do this, then sign me up for whatever you need me to do to help out.

Thanks for all that you've done, and I hope you continue the fight.

Clay

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson