VA: IT, security progress to accelerate in 2008

The Veterans Affairs Department expects the technical applications that are the foundation of its information security will be in place during the next fiscal year, said Robert Howard, VA’s chief information officer. Improving policies and procedures are a continuous process.

In the past few weeks, VA has awarded contracts that will let it perform port monitoring and use rights-management software to secure e-mail attachments, Howard told lawmakers today.

“We expect to see dramatic improvement in 2008,” he said at a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. VA provided similar testimony before the Senate committee last week.

The department is implementing information security in a comprehensive strategy instead of piecemeal at the same time it is reorganizing its information technology environment under a centralized IT approach, he said. VA plans to complete the reorganization in July 2008. Earlier this year, VA moved authority over 6,000 IT employees to the department CIO’s office from VA’s health, benefits and cemetery administrations.

The Government Accountability Office, however, said VA has lagged in its reorganization and the management processes needed to make that change occur. VA does not have a schedule of when it will complete milestones for the IT reorganization or a way to measure them, said Valerie Melvin, director of GAO’s workforce and management information systems issues.

VA may not complete its IT reorganization by next summer as planned because it has not put in place the management processes that support it and has not yet hired all the managers it needs to oversee it, she said. Although the department has gotten support from top executives and established a governance structure to manage resources, VA continues to operate without a single, dedicated implementation team to oversee the realignment, Melvin said.

“Unless VA dedicates a team to oversee the further implementation of the realignment — including defining and establishing the processes that will enable the department to address its IT management weaknesses — it risks delaying or missing the potential benefits of the realignment,” she told lawmakers. The department has tested only two of the planned 36 management processes.

Similarly, VA has implemented only four of GAO’s 26 prior IT security recommendations.

“Until the department addresses shortcomings in its major security initiatives and implements prior recommendations, it will have limited assurance that it can protect its systems and information from the unauthorized disclosure, misuse, or loss of personally identifiable data,” Melvin said.

Although he said VA has moved slowly, Howard said the deputy assistant secretaries who report to him are implementing the management processes for the reorganization and IT security, such as enterprise infrastructure and incident response. For example, last week VA completed its new security handbook, which has guidance on policy and procedures for IT professionals and rules of behavior standardized departmentwide for all employees. VA also will add an e-learning module from the Office of Personnel Management to help train employees, said Adair Martinez, deputy assistant secretary for information protection and risk management in VA’s CIO office.

Although GAO and lawmakers have praised VA’s move to standardize IT, VA physicians have concerns, said Ben Davoren, director of clinical informatics at the department’s San Francisco Medical Center.

“I believe they felt that the regionalization of IT resources would create new points of failure that could not be controlled by the sites experiencing the impact,” Davoren said.

That fear materialized last month, when the data-processing center in Sacramento suffered a nine-hour outage during business hours that crippled the clinical-information systems of 17 VA medical facilities, including the San Francisco hospital. He called it “the most significant technological threat to patient safety VA has ever had.” Backup systems for the regional strategy were unavailable or overwhelmed in four of the medical centers, Davoren said.

VA is investigating the incident internally and with an independent review to assure contingency plans, Howard said. He is also evaluating the design of the regional processing strategy, which VA started years ago, before centralization. It aims to better protect information in a secure data center instead of in the local facility. Regional data centers received a push and further evaluation after Hurricane Katrina to assure that veterans’ hospital records would be available if a hospital system went down, as happened in New Orleans, Howard said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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