Congress wants to give VA CIO’s IT budget authority

Congress is proposing legislation that could make the Veterans Affairs Department a model for giving department CIOs across government more authority over IT resources. The House Veterans Affairs Committee is drafting legislation now to consolidate IT budget and personnel authority under the CIO.

IT management has been a long-standing challenge across government. Most federal CIOs do not have explicit control over their IT budgets.

The proposal by House Veterans Affairs chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) to transfer all VA IT budget authority to the CIO is a response to VA system failures, such as the $342 million CoreFLS financial management system and $300 million HR Links automated personnel system.

Outside reviews also have harshly criticized early design plans to modernize its VistA electronic health record system with the HealtheVet VistA system.

VA received $1.6 billion in fiscal 2005 for IT funding, and 2006 projected spending is more than $2 billion.

Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., which VA hired to assess its IT organization, recommended that VA centralize its IT infrastructure. Each VA agency has its own way of providing IT services, which has led to higher costs and more risk, said Michael Pedersen, managing vice president for Gartner Consulting and lead consultant on the assessment.

“The way money flows through the department, it’s hard to track IT. There isn’t a well-defined chain of command,” he said.

The committee plans to include Gartner’s recommendations and confer with the Senate on its draft legislation, which it expects to have ready in a matter of weeks.

“Centralizing will allow for a more transparent budget process that should streamline the IT decision-making process within VA. The bill will also empower the CIO with greater overall authority in allocating all IT funds, personnel and resources,” Buyer said at a hearing of his committee last week.

Centralization vs. federation

VA CIO Robert McFarland said at the hearing that it is important “to get our arms around the infrastructure.”

Not all VA executives agree with the recommendation for IT centralization. Some prefer a so-called federated approach, under which the CIO shares some authority with the business units that require new applications.

VA deputy secretary Gordon Mansfield said the federated model was the best approach for the short term, while at the same time VA would strive toward centralization.

“The federated model we’re looking at will allow CIO management oversight and budget authority,” Mansfield said.

McFarland said he could accept the federated model, “as long as I have veto power over how money is spent on IT projects and infrastructure. I do not have visibility on all money spent today,” he said.

When Buyer pointedly asked him which model he would choose, McFarland said the centralization model. “It’s the big bang,” he said. “The centralization option is the best for VA in the long run. But I’m realistic enough to know we have to take one step at a time.”

Centralizing its IT infrastructure under the CIO would, within five years, save the VA $345 million annually, Pedersen said. But it entails risk if all levels of the department do not participate, and the process is complex.

The federated model would save the department $207 million annually within five years. But it would keep some of the barriers among VA’s divisions in place, Pedersen said.

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