Senators grill VA's CIO nominee

President Barack Obama’s nominee for chief information officer of the Veterans Affairs Department got sharp questioning today by members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee who wanted to know how he would stop the agency’s public string of information technology failures.

Under questioning, Roger Baker, nominee for VA assistant secretary for information and technology and CIO, told the panel the first step toward solving what he called VA’s large-scale management problem would be “to address the issues with failed programs and the environment that allows them to continue for 10 years before being identified as failed programs.”

When Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) asked about the agency’s failed patient scheduling system, Baker took it as an example of his point.

“My view is that a lot of the issue with patient scheduling and other failures is an environmental one of not dealing honestly with the fact that you are failing,” he said. “The program certainly showed evidence of having problems well before the 10-year mark. It is important to accept those problems and deal honestly with them and, if necessary, admit that you are failing and that substantial correction is necessary.”

Baker pointed to efforts the agency has already made that could contribute to solving the problems, including IT consolidation and a renewed emphasis on delivering operational services. He also said that as CIO, he would examine contractors’ efforts “to make certain that we’re getting the real benefit of the work they do and in a timely fashion.”

Baker also praised VA’s nascent record-sharing effort with the Defense Department and pledged to keep pressure on the effort. “A lot of work needs to be done to make certain that that information comes to the VA in a usable form,” he said. “It’s one thing to receive the information. It’s another to be able to use it.”

Although he has spent most of his career in the private sector, Baker served as the Commerce Department’s CIO from 1991 to 2001.

He has long advocated making federal CIOs politically appointed rather than career positions, which he says would give them more influence over the budget and IT-related operating decisions.

When he was reminded after the hearing of those statements eight years ago, Baker replied, “Kind of got my wish here, didn’t I? Let’s see, I’m political. The VA CIO has the IT budget and clearly the influence and control over operations. It’s the way it looks in the private sector.”

Concerning VA's failures, Baker said, “There are two keys to that. One is stop them from happening. That would be nice. The second is communicate. I like discussing the issue I’m having to see if anybody has any thoughts on how to deal with it. But I also recognize that I am now a part of the political team.”

“This is an opportunity to show that this is the way IT ought to be run, and government can make substantial changes and substantial improvements,” he added. “If we achieve the goal that I set out in my testimony today, which is to become the best IT organization in government, I think that’ll help a lot of other CIOs in what they’re trying to accomplish as well.”

The committee members also questioned William Gunn, nominee for general counsel at VA; Jose Riojas, nominated to become VA’s assistant secretary for operations security and preparedness; and John Sepulveda, Obama’s pick for assistant secretary for human resources at VA.

Akaka said the confirmation of all four nominees is almost certain but did not say when the vote would take place.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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