Staying connected

Harold Gracey, acting chief information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, never served in the military - unless you count his six-year stint as a policeman in the National Guard. He was never wounded in combat or stormed an enemy encampment, but he understands what dedication to a mission means.

Working with veterans over the past 16 years has given him insight into how his work can improve people's lives. The computer systems and telecommunications projects Gracey oversees are designed to ease the delivery of health care and benefits to veterans.

Before coming to the VA in 1983, Gracey held civilian positions with the Army and the Public Health Service. "I never saw who we delivered services to or the results of our policy changes," Gracey said.

At the VA, the view is different. "You come in here, you see people on crutches, veterans in wheelchairs, [wearing] eye patches, hooks, and you start to think, 'Hey, these are the people we work for,' " he said.

The result is a better understanding of the VA's mission, Gracey said. "Here, I really got connected to the mission and the people we were serving," he said. "You can't miss it, and you can't ignore it. You see it every day. You hear it every day."

The life that led Gracey to his career in public service began 51 years ago in the Baltimore area, where his mother taught school and his father worked in life insurance and real estate. "It was almost the 'Wonder Years' growing up," Gracey said, referring to the idyllic setting of the popular TV series. "Baltimore was a nice, comfortable place to live and grow up."

Gracey stayed in Baltimore, attended Johns Hopkins University and graduated with a degree in psychology in 1970. After college, Gracey took a job as a management analyst with the Army at Fort Meade, Md., where he studied how to make the best use of Army resources. For a brief time, he left Maryland to work in a similar job at Fort Dix, N.J.

After the Army, Gracey moved to the Rockville, Md., headquarters of the Public Health Service, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. There, he performed similar management analysis work and became involved in information technology projects. He also worked in emergency preparedness to ensure that the agency could respond to public health needs during disasters, such as hurricanes, floods or nuclear accidents.

The job was full of surprises. For example, one night in 1979 as Gracey and his wife, Donna, were going out for dinner, Gracey's boss telephoned to let him know that he had to help plan for a potential disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

In 1983, Gracey joined the VA and began managing IT projects. After the VA was designated a cabinet-level agency, Gracey became chief of staff for the secretary of the department. Working under former VA Secretary Jesse Brown, a military veteran, Gracey was infused with a strong commitment to make the VA the best agency it could be. "[Brown] believed in this organization and its mission, and he wanted to make it the best organization in the federal government," Gracey said.

Now Gracey has a chance to apply some of that vision in his new post as the principal deputy assistant secretary for information and technology and the acting CIO for the VA. He heads the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology, which was created in July 1998. So far, no permanent assistant secretary has been appointed for the office.

Gracey describes his job as one that "is not just information technology" but one focused on serving veterans. This approach should enable a veteran who places a call to a Veterans Benefits Administration office to also obtain information about his next appointment at a Veterans Health Administration hospital. While the process is not yet seamless, Gracey constantly tells his employees, "Keep your eye on the mission: better service to veterans."

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