- By Judi Hasson
- Jun 25, 2001
Not long ago, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi learned a lesson about the VA's complicated computer systems. And he learned it the hard way.
His problem started in 1999 when he tried to get stitches removed at a VA hospital in San Diego, his hometown, after his right hip was replaced at a VA facility in Palo Alto, Calif.
The San Diego facility had never heard of the decorated Vietnam veteran, even though he had served as acting VA secretary in 1992 during the elder President Bush's administration. So Principi, 57, like thousands of others just like him, spent several hours filling out a dozen forms before getting a simple outpatient procedure.
Now Principi is vowing to make a radical change in the way the system works—and often does not. "We are not one VA yet," he said. (For a profile of Principi, see Page 46.)
Principi's task is daunting. The VA, which employs 221,000 workers, operates 173 hospitals, 22 separate networks for its health care facilities and 300 aging legacy systems. VA hospitals cannot communicate with one another online because medical records are stored on paper. There are large backlogs of claims and long waits for disability decisions.
In fact, some studies have shown that the VA's response time is getting worse, even with technological advances. It takes the VA an average of seven months to respond to an initial disability claim, according to the agency—six months longer than it takes to process a veteran's education claim. One cause may be the VA's decentralized information technology operations, where separate chief information officers oversee IT departments for the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Veterans Health Administration and the National Cemetery Administration. As for agencywide oversight, the VA hasn't had a permanent CIO since 1998.
An Associated Press analysis last year found that even after spending more than $200 million to upgrade its computers, the Veterans Benefits Administration, which distributes compensation to 3.2 million veterans and their survivors, took longer to process claims than it did a decade earlier.
And information security has plagued the agency. The General Accounting Office concluded this year that flaws in VA systems "have placed financial, health care and benefits payment information at risk of misuse, fraud, improper disclosure or destruction—possibly occurring without detection."
Principi's IT Principles
Principi said he is so troubled by the VA's backlog in processing claims and other snafus that "I lose a lot of sleep over this." During an interview with Federal Computer Week this month, Principi asked, "How do we address a population that is dying?"
To fix the situation, Principi is moving quickly to develop an enterprise architecture plan—a sort of blueprint for a common computing system—which is mandated by the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 (see box at left).
He established a task force and ordered it to come up with an enterprise architecture by Aug. 14. Until a plan is in place, Principi has frozen new IT contracts and he is reaching out to experts for advice. Among them is former IBM Corp. executive John Zachman, who defined the concept of enterprise architecture and is now a consultant and chief executive officer of the Zachman Institute for Framework Advancement in California.
Principi has promised to "end the stovepipe incompatibility of the systems." Stovepipes occur when multiple computer systems within an agency cannot communicate with one another.
Across government, agencies are struggling to redesign IT architectures, while IT managers continue to run aging legacy systems and work within stovepipe operations that make it impossible for employees to communicate within an agency.
Some have made more progress than others, such as the Customs Service, the Energy Department, the Defense Department and NASA. Other agencies' architecture redesigns, such as the Department of Health and Human Services', are still in their infancy.
"With any agency, I think you'll find they are in different states of organization. We all recognize that this level of standardization is good for an organization," said James Buckner, CIO for the Army Materiel Command.
Under the Clinger-Cohen Act, federal agencies are required to create an enterprise architecture plan that ensures the alignment of IT solutions with agency business and missions. The goal is to establish a computing system that can be deployed across an agency.
"An architecture creates a mechanism for you to create a vision of the future and a road map for moving the organization from the current business process to the new business process," said Lee Holcomb, CIO at NASA and co-chairman of the CIO Council's interoperability committee, which issued a 60-page guide to federal enterprise architecture.
Under such a plan, an agency might standardize computer equipment across the agency, select one vendor and recommend a standard operating procedure from soup to nuts. That means every office within a department might have Microsoft Corp.'s e-mail software, Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes and Tivoli Systems Inc.'s Enterprise Management Framework and modules. By doing so, the plan would cut down on the number of help desks needed to troubleshoot the equipment and cut supply costs because agencies would be able to buy in bulk.
But the architecture also would give agencies the freedom to add the tools they need to carry out their work. An Army research laboratory, for instance, could purchase specialized simulation tools that would not be required by other parts of the service.
It is especially important to have the framework in place before spending millions of dollars on technology, Holcomb said. But few federal agencies have done so, and even those that have put a framework in place have not integrated it into their daily operations.
"If you don't have an enterprise architecture plan and a blueprint, you can't be successful," said Rob Thomas II, director of technology and architecture at the Customs Service and co-chairman of the CIO Council's federal information architecture working group.
Customs is one of the few federal agencies to develop a plan and make it work. Like the VA, it has a constituency scattered across the country. But that's where the similarity ends. Customs needed a modernization plan because it faced continuing computer breakdowns at U.S. border points, delaying billions of dollars in imported goods, which puts a drag on the economy, according to the Information Technology Association of America. Congress approved the modernization plan, funded it and approved the award of a prime contract to IBM Global Services Inc. after seeing the Customs architecture plan in action.
But until now, problems with information systems have hindered the VA's ability to conduct business, and the agency has been unable to fix the problems because it had no core plan.
"Obviously, we are not starting from scratch," said Guy McMichael III, the VA's acting CIO. "We are taking an existing building that needs to be rehabbed.... Enterprise architecture is a long-range project, not a short-term fix."
With a background in business, management and the military, Principi is one of several new Cabinet officials working to develop a more corporate mode of operation instead of the patchwork quilt that has traditionally defined government.
"They're coming in and finding splintered fiefdoms within their own departments," and they are moving toward a concept of integration, said Alan Balutis, executive director of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils, which represents the interests of IT professionals worldwide.
The new breed of top executives in government all know that "technology can link and tie and integrate, and one doesn't have to go through the massive reorganizations and relocations of years past," Balutis said.
Since his first day on the job, Principi made it clear that he was going to manage IT differently. "I intend to reform the way the VA uses information technology."
But first, there's the money problem. Principi is sure Congress won't give him money without a plan. "I think we stand a much better chance of getting resources if we have a plan, and I don't want to invest without a plan," he said.
The VA may be able to shift some of its $58 billion budget, which includes $1.5 billion for IT, to cover the architecture's expense. Some of the money could be better utilized, too, Principi said. He would not hesitate to pull the plug on the VetsNet program, the Veterans Benefits Administration's troubled compensation and pension payment system, he said. He has set up a task force to look at why it takes so long to pay compensation claims.
He expects to have a CIO in place once the paperwork is cleared for the nomination. The leading contender is retired Rear Adm. John Gauss, according to sources.
Those who know Principi and his record say he will get the work done despite the uphill task ahead. "Tony Principi has a plan to get the VA straightened out," said Rick Surratt, deputy national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans.
"It's a huge task," added Harold Gracey, the VA's former CIO.
But Principi is optimistic. Asked if a system overhaul would be accomplished during his four-year term, he replied with one word: "Absolutely."