VA will centralize IT budget, personnel authority over next year

The Veterans Affairs Department will put control of its IT budget and personnel under the department CIO—a sea change that should prevent future monumental IT system failures.

Congress has sought to give the VA CIO authority over the IT budget, which was $1.8 billion in fiscal 2005. Currently, the department CIO has control over $40 million—less than 3 percent of the department’s IT budget.

VA has shelved systems after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on them, such as the $342 million CoreFLS financial-management system and $300 million HR Links automated personnel system.

“This is the first step toward a centralized approach,” VA deputy secretary Gordon Mansfield told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee today. There was not universal agreement on the approach, but a consensus on use of a federated approach was crafted and brought to the secretary for his approval. It will take 12 to 18 months to implement the IT reorganization, Mansfield said.

VA administrations will retain software development for their programs, but they must adhere to the department’s enterprise architecture, which maps out VA’s programs, investments and customer needs.

“This is a culture steeped in decentralization. You have to take steps to get there. I have agreed to support that decision,” said VA CIO Robert McFarland. He prefers the centralized approach because it would have the “big bang” effect of providing more savings and standardization. McFarland will have veto authority under the federated approach.

“I’m not going to allow projects to continue in a stovepiped manner. At least I’m not going to fund them,” he said.

The problems with CoreFLS, whose pilot was shut down last year at the VA hospital in Bay Pines, Fla., had a lot to do with customization, according to McFarland.

“Even if it worked, you could not pick that up and lay it on top of another hospital system. It would have to be customized again,” he said.

The IT reorganization is the result of a review by Gartner Inc., which McFarland contracted to provide models on which to improve VA’s infrastructure and processes.

The consultant found considerable redundancy in IT management in planning, design, development, acquisition, operation and oversight across the three VA administrations.

The Senate included language in its version of the fiscal 2006 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies spending bill putting all VA IT into a department IT account. The House and Senate must reconcile their versions.

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