VA plan rolls on

The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to hire at least 60 engineers to help develop the agency's enterprise architecture (EA) plan, a project with a three-year goal of eliminating separate systems and creating "One VA" across the massive civilian agency.

With an EA blueprint now in place, John Gauss, the VA's chief information officer, said that he is seeking experienced technology specialists who can "look at a system from an end-to-end perspective and not [as] a myopic piece of the parts."

Among the new hires, Gauss said, would be engineers and computer scientists with engineering backgrounds. Qualified applicants are already beating down his door, he said. "We're going to need some help," Gauss said.

The first implementation of the EA plan is on schedule to roll out July 1. It will enable department officials to develop a set of information technology functions to support the VA's fiscal 2004 budget request.

"The plan says that we are going to have a sufficient part of the architecture defined to support the [2004] budget process," Gauss said.

The EA plan, developed in a series of meetings last year, would eliminate duplication in the agency and streamline operations for the VA's 172 hospitals and service centers.

For example, each VA hospital has its own telecommunications and computer networks. Under the plan, they all would be similar, facilitating easier communications.

"This plan provides a way ahead for the 'One VA Enterprise' to align integrated technology solutions with the business needs of the department," Gauss said.

Gauss and his chief technology officer, Frank Perry, had extensive experience in implementing EA plans when they served in the military. This is the fourth time they are working together to integrate and standardize technology solutions.

The approach makes sense, experts say. EA "helps you to focus your IT investments," said French Caldwell, vice president of knowledge management for Gartner Inc. "Trying to save money on individual investment isn't what works. It's having a portfolio management approach that does."

Michael Tiemann, a senior technical adviser at the Energy Department, said the VA "gets it. They understand you have to make the investment in it. They are trying to do it right and do it over time.

"It's smart to take an EA approach and to do it the way they are trying to do it," said Tiemann, who is co-chairman of the CIO Council's architecture working group for the Federal Architecture and Infrastructure Committee. "They have the direct attention of the VA secretary, who talks about EA as the means to transforming the VA to being a more modern institution."

Among the jobs that Gauss already has tackled is changing the telecommunications structure and transferring responsibility to run it from the VA to Sprint, which handles the agency's telecom network. As a result, the VA will save 27 percent of its costs, allowing it to plow the savings into other modernization projects.

"There is not a lot of new money," Gauss aid. "We're squeezing it from the old. The strategy is to mine 'the gold' that exists."

The VA is expected to begin seeing returns on its investments in fiscal 2003, but the savings will have to remain in the telecommunications budget, he said.

His first project was telecommunications, but now Gauss plans to move quickly to reconfigure other systems, including cybersecurity, data center continuity of operations, and eligibility and enrollment for all beneficiaries.

"Before I depart this job, I plan to have a wide-area network done, the infrastructure done, the cybersecurity center done, the data-processing center done, the mid- and low-end automation done and the workforce plan done," Gauss said.

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Customer service

The Department of Veterans Affairs' enterprise architecture plan will make it easier for the agency to deliver services to its customers. The services include the following:

* Veterans will only have to register once with the VA, not each time they seek a service such as education benefits, housing or vocational rehabilitation.

* Veteran information will be available anywhere, anytime, to any authorized user in real time, while maintaining data security and the veteran's privacy.

* Telemedicine use will be enhanced to improve timeliness and quality of care for veterans and to maximize provider consultation.

* Veterans will be able to apply for benefits and monitor the status of their applications via the Internet.

* Internet and phone access will be available to veterans around the clock.

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