Rep. Buyer: Give VA CIO more clout

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee told current and past information technology officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs today that the VA’s “be patient” attitude toward its long-planned IT reorganization was no longer acceptable. In addition, the committee’s chairman proposed that the VA elevate the chief information officer’s status.

Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) expressed dismay over the VA’s “refusal to get control of IT,” calling the department’s leaders “centurions of the status quo.”

He said he was deeply concerned about the potential for further security breaches after a laptop computer and mobile device containing personal information – including Social Security numbers – on more than 26 million veterans was stolen from a VA employee’s home earlier this month.

Buyer proposed elevating the VA’s CIO to the undersecretary level and the deputy CIO to assistant secretary.

Robert McFarland and John Gauss, both former assistant secretaries for information and technology at the VA, and Robert Howard, the department’s acting assistant secretary for information and technology, concurred with the proposal.

The VA needs “very clear directives with [top-level] signatures on them” to move the IT reorganization forward, Howard said. He was also critical of the lack of deadlines for officials to approve directives and other implementation plans.

“The new VA IT management system will strengthen the protection of all sensitive information,” he said.

“We can fix it and we’re heading in the right direction,” Howard added.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) was dubious. “Promises made to Congress have not been kept,” he said. “We’re having to micromanage VA, and we shouldn’t be.”

The committee is considering a package of new legislation for the VA that would tighten security and give the CIO greater authority, Buyer said. In that regard, he suggested that the VA and the Defense Department adopt an ID system for service personnel and veterans that does not use Social Security numbers.

In addition to elevating the CIO and deputy CIO, Buyer proposed rewriting performance evaluations to link senior executives’ performance bonuses to IT compliance.

He is also considering barring IT contractors from hiring offshore subcontractors to prevent the loss of confidential or personal data abroad, he said.

But McFarland cautioned that such a step could harm relations with contractors and U.S. allies. “You need to know who your contractors are,” McFarland said, adding that a more prudent step would be to encourage contractors to advise the agency when they think about hiring offshore subcontractors.

The committee will hear from several more witnesses June 29.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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