VA rethinks technology strategy

The Department of Veterans Affairs last month launched an enterprise architecture plan that will consolidate information technology systems and make them interchangeable at the largest civilian agency in the federal government.

The plan to create "One VA" will work like a giant version of a child's Lego set, with pieces able to snap together at many different intersections, according to John Gauss, the VA's chief information officer.

The plan will halt the development of duplicate systems, improve accountability and contain costs. And by building an agencywide system, department officials hope the architecture will improve the VA's responsiveness to its prime customer — the veteran. The architecture plan will reorganize the VA's IT operations to include:

* A new information technology board to replace the VA's CIO council. The board will include business and technical representatives from different parts of the agency.

* An IT council to review changes to the architecture plan.

* A chief architect to handle the project and report directly to Gauss.

It will bring together the VA's more than 170 hospitals and other facilities in a way that will enable all parts of the system to communicate with one another.

The VA has long been criticized for its backlog of medical and other claims, which sometimes take more than a year to process. And because the parts of the system are not connected, veterans must fill out the same forms over and over if they seek medical attention at more than one hospital.

Leon Kappelman, director of the Information Systems Research Center at the University of North Texas, led the team developing the project. He said the VA's internal complexity was transferred to the veteran, who has been faced with keeping track of his own medical records. "He had to cope with the complexity of the VA and its technological infrastructure," Kappelman said.

And like those at many other federal agencies, the VA's IT network was fragmented, "wasting a bunch of dollars by having different systems," said Roger Baker, former CIO at the Commerce Department and now executive vice president and manager of the Network and Telecommunications Business Group at CACI International Inc.

In the future, Baker said, "When someone moves from Job A to Job B at the VA, strangely enough, they won't have to learn a new network."

But the ambitious plan, developed in only three months, may disappoint many vendors because the agency does not expect to spend billions of dollars to build it. Gauss said the VA will "do the engineering before going to manufacture" and will carefully review every potential investment before approving it. "This is not leading to any huge buying opportunity out there," Gauss said, declining to estimate One VA's cost.

The pieces of the systems that work will remain intact, Gauss said, and the parts that do not fit with the rest of the system will be jettisoned.

Nevertheless, there should be plenty of work for the private sector. Gauss estimated that 60 percent of the work would be outsourced, and the VA's design could serve as a model for other federal agencies struggling to come up with their own enterprise architecture plans.

"The VA has been plagued with a number of stovepiped systems that can't talk to each other — different architectures, different standards for approaching things," said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former senior Air Force procurement official. "Nirvana is One VA."

The new color-coded road map does not represent a single project, and it does not mean the legacy systems will be retired. It is not even a plan with a conclusion. Instead, the top officials at the agency have developed an open- ended design that may always be subject to change.

"This is not something that has an end," Gauss said. "We have to evolve it. We can't shut ourselves down."

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 requires agencies to approach IT spending as an investment with demonstrable returns — an elusive goal for most agencies including the VA, until now. But when VA Secretary Anthony Principi took office early this year, he charged his top deputies to come up with a plan and do it quickly.

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