The VA's CIO wants IT budget restoration

Department makes peace with GAO over agile development

Suspending and delaying spending on troubled IT projects saved $250 million for the Veterans Affairs Department in fiscal 2010, and now Congress appears ready to reclaim some of that money. However, the VA still needs it, Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology at the VA, said today.

Baker, in a conference call with reporters, also said he has resolved his recent spat with the Government Accountability Office about agile development for IT projects.

Asked about recent proposed cuts to the VA’s IT budget, Baker said the primary cause was leftover funding in the IT development account from fiscal 2010.

The VA spent $250 million less than anticipated on its IT development in fiscal 2010 as a result of suspensions and reassessments to about 188 projects under the VA’s Project Management Accountability System, said Baker, who also is the VA's CIO.

Related stories:

VA, GAO in fight over agile development

VA suspends spending on 188 IT projects

That funding is part of a $700 million pool of unspent IT funds that the VA had hoped to spend in fiscal 2011, Baker said.

However, a portion of that unspent funding is likely to be reclaimed for other uses under recent decisions by the House and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The House on Dec. 8 and the Senate panel on Dec. 16 each approved a $3.16 billion budget for the VA’s IT needs in fiscal 2011, which was $145 million less than the requested amount. The requested amount was the same as the fiscal 2010 enacted level of $3.3 billion.

“The main cause of the reduction was the [$700 million] carryforward of funds from 2010 to 2011, which occurred as a result of the discipline of the" project management system, Baker said.

Despite those actions, the department’s fiscal 2011 budget is not yet final. The Senate recently approved an extension of temporary funding for the federal government until March 2011 while appropriations legislation is hammered out.

Meanwhile, Baker said he understood the decisions to trim funding to the VA’s IT budget because of the pool of unused money.

“I’m not going to tell you I am in strong concurrence with that, but I understand the logic,” Baker said. “It is tight budget time in Washington. We have been planning for it.”

Even so, he urged Congress to restore the full $3.3 billion requested.

“We can productively use the entire amount,” Baker said. “We will defend our budget.”

Baker also said he and GAO officials have come to agreement about the VA’s agile development efforts for IT projects and said the dispute might have appeared more consequential than it was. Agile development is an incremental form of development in which projects are segmented and functionality is delivered in increments.

The disagreement came to light Dec. 1 in a GAO report that criticized the VA’s application of agile development in creating the Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefit claims processing system. The GAO said the VA lacked a key benchmark in the program.

"Without the overall velocity — a key mechanism under the Agile methodology — VA does not have the information to understand the expected effort to complete the total scope of work and the associated length of time to do so,” GAO said.

Baker hit back in a letter attached to the report. “Because the Agile methods are not broadly used in the federal sector, this may have been the first exposure the GAO team performing the audit had to the methodology. Limited exposure to Agile could possibly have caused GAO to present incorrect assumptions as fact,” he wrote.

Baker today said his letter had been in response to an earlier draft of the GAO report and the final report accommodated his concerns.

“We both ended up getting caught up by the process,” Baker said. “At this point we are in strong agreement between the GAO and VA. The GAO wants us to continue to use agile development. They had some good ideas for improvement.”

GAO officials were not immediately available to respond.

Baker said that although agile development will continue to be used for many VA IT development projects, including the Veterans Benefits Management System, not all IT projects are converting to the agile process. The decision of whether to use the agile format is up to the program managers involved, he added.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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