VA learns tech lessons

ORLANDO, Fla. — When it comes to poor oversight of projects rushed to implementation in a stovepiped manner, the Department of Veterans Affairs has done it all, Robert McFarland, VA's assistant secretary for information and technology.

"We still have inadequate detail on the true health of our projects," McFarland told an audience during the annual Information Processing Interagency Conference.

A recent example includes last summer's shutdown of a $200 million pilot financial management system in one of the busiest hospitals in the VA network. The project, a version of the department's effort to replace stand-alone financial and logistic systems with a single core system (CoreFLS), was neither a wise business decision nor affordable in the long term, McFarland said. "We rush to market with a statement of work that may have been somewhat hastily prepared," he later told Federal Computer Week.

Other VA hospitals had no way of using the CoreFLS software, which was being piloted at the Bay Pines Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla., McFarland said. "We could not have taken that system and have laid it across other facilities," he said. "You couldn't print enough money to do this thing 200 times."

Consulting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers is now analyzing the pilot's material weaknesses and will propose recommendations for the next iteration. For fiscal 2006, department officials are requesting $70.1 million to spend on CoreFLS, a $35 million increase from the enacted fiscal 2005 amount.

Reversing the department's troubled history requires a whole new project management approach – and one is in the process of being implemented, he said.

A new enterprise project management office will begin providing a senior level of oversight – described by McFarland as "greybeard expertise" -- to major information technology projects. "We'll be building it as quickly as we can get people," with full implementation set for during fiscal 2006, McFarland said.

Based on Defense Department project management practices, the enterprise management office will provide for "a cadre of really strong, experienced experts that help new project managers understand the tell-tale signs when projects are going off target," he said. "You're always going to run into issues; the key is to catch them in time."

Project requirements will be more closely defined and a milestone process will enable managers to better compare progress against the original statement of work, McFarland said.

The department is among the largest federal spenders on information technology with a proposed fiscal 2006 IT budget of $2.1 billion, of which $1.9 billion is for major projects, McFarland said.

Among the major projects slated for 2006 is HealtheVet -- pronounced "healthy vet" -- a new effort to consolidate its electronic health records system. The requested $311.3 million will help place the existing, decentralized health records system onto a modernized platform and fund some user interface enhancements, McFarland said. The existing system, for which department officials request $413.3 million in fiscal 2006, is eating up resources for an outdated IT structure system, he said. The system, the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VISTA) is two decades old and was programmed with a now obsolete language. "When you add all that together, the cost of maintenance is extremely high," McFarland said.

Department officials have said the HealtheVet will take at least five years to complete but will result in a central repository of medical records accessible in VA hospitals nationwide. VA officials will take pains to not to interfere with doctors and nurses "ability to use [VISTA] or the way they use it," McFarland said, joking that otherwise medical personnel "will come after us with scalpels."

One project with a shorter timeline involves creating a new environment for data sharing with the Defense Department, McFarland said. VA currently gets about 31 information feeds from DOD and sends back about 14, an overall process that McFarland described as cumbersome. Common data standards will allow both Cabinet departments to add and pull data at will, a project that should be complete during 2006 or sooner, McFarland said.

VA's downgrade to a failing grade on the latest quarterly President's Management Agenda score card should also be reversed soon, McFarland said. The demotion came as a result of lax security certification of department systems, he added. VA officials are busy at work certifying and accrediting all 644 systems not previously covered. The effort should be complete by Sept. 1, he said. "That is the goal. Not partially, not 60 percent, 100 percent."

McFarland said he's also working to further the department's enterprise architecture. VA officials have long talked a good enterprisewide talk, but now they're truly executing it that manner, he said. A true "One VA" blueprint is close to completion and should be ready within the next 12 months, he said.

New projects already require the chief architect's approval before they can proceed, "or we don't fund the project," he said.

"Connectivity is everything," McFarland added.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.


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