VA chief prioritizes technology

VA Office of Information and Technology

The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs proclaimed before a House subcommittee Wednesday that he's placing a priority on fixing the VA's long-standing technology problems.

"I intend to reform the way VA uses information technology" to ensure that the department's policies and procedures comply with the Clinger-Cohen Act, VA Secretary Anthony Principi said. The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 established the basis for managing agency IT programs.

The VA will not spend "any new funds on IT until we have defined an enterprise architecture that ends "stovepipe' systems, incompatible systems development and the collection of data that do not yield useful information," Principi told the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

"I don't want to be back here in six months or a year," he said. "I want to show demonstrable improvement." And if the agency is spending money and is still not achieving its goals, "then something needs to be fixed," he said.

Lawmakers welcomed the secretary's comments. "I wasn't prepared for such a stern statement," said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), the subcommittee chairman. "You've come in here with a swift hand and said, "I'm going to take control of something that doesn't look right, feel right or act right.' "

Principi said he is going to bring together a panel of experts from the private sector that will work with the senior leadership of VA's key business lines. That panel will be responsible for developing a comprehensive, integrated enterprise architecture plan to be delivered "in a matter of months," he said.

The development of that plan — which will have to be in place before any new projects receive funding — is not dependent on the appointment of a new chief information officer, said Guy McMichael III, the VA's newly appointed acting CIO.

The search for a permanent CIO is also a high priority, department officials said.

"The CIO will be a very, very important position," Principi said, adding that he also is considering asking Congress for authority to create a new undersecretary for management who would spearhead the efforts.

Meanwhile, Principi said he is ready to take the reins of some of the agency's troubled projects.

A plan to automate the Veterans Benefits Administration's benefits delivery systems faces a make-or-break review in the coming months. And the Veterans Service Network (Vetsnet) also must be approved by an independent review or it will be killed, Principi said.

Development started in April 1996, and Vetsnet was scheduled to go online by May 1998 for a cost of $8 million. But it has suffered from a lack of focus and an absence of clear goals. "These problems are behind us," Principi said. But he said he is still concerned about the critical issues of performance and effective systems.

"We will not throw good money after bad. If this current version of Vetsnet doesn't meet our needs for the next several years, we will terminate its development," he said.

Dorobek is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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