Veterans Affairs

Here's what VA's decisive new CIO has planned

LaVerne Horton Council

LaVerne Council, assistant secretary for information and technology at the Department of Veterans Affairs

Aside from a few key personnel changes at the top, there has not been much news out of the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Information and Technology since LaVerne Council took over in July. But things haven't exactly been quiet, either.

As one of only a handful of Senate-confirmed agency CIOs -- she's officially assistant secretary for information and technology -- Council is charged with leading the department's $4 billion IT operations and making policy changes to the largest IT organization on the federal civilian side. The office supports 300,000 employees, plus contractors and, most critically, veterans who are increasingly accessing services online.

Council is preparing to take the wraps off a new enterprise cybersecurity strategy and an overall direction for the office. Her debut on the federal IT speaking circuit will happen on Oct. 15 at a Government Information Technology Executive Council event in Washington. That appearance will come a day after a slate of meetings among her senior executives, where she will outline her strategy for VA's IT team through the end of the current administration.

If her first personnel moves, which resulted in the departures of the No. 2 and No. 3 officials in her shop, are any indication, there could be some directional shifts that feel sudden and dramatic, at least by government standards.

"I probably have been much more decisive than the team has been exposed to," Council told FCW in an exclusive interview. "I've made decisions faster than I think the team has ever seen, but they've been deliberate, they've been clear, and they've been actioned very quickly."

Cybersecurity featured prominently in Council's confirmation hearing. Accordingly, she assembled a group of in-house experts to come up with a new enterprise strategy and detailed them all to VA's downtown D.C. headquarters -- to "work across the hall from the boss," she said. The team has been evaluating VA's risk management structure and kicking off new projects, she added.

"It was interesting because it was counter, I think, to how we've done things in the past," Council said. "We wanted to be able to address the issues quickly. We wanted to be able to have an engagement across the entire organization. We wanted to also tie to new standards and to the best‑in‑class standards within government and outside of government, and so we took on some heavy lifting."

Part of the cybersecurity work has focused on addressing the "material weakness" issues identified for years in reports from VA's inspector general. But Council is also hoping to add an "offensive posture" to network defense by using all the available resources, including the Einstein 3 network protection system from the Department of Homeland Security.

"An offensive posture is really one in which we engage the resources, the employees, to understand what they can do," Council said, "how they show up in a secure manner, what their responsibilities are, and the things that we can do to change anybody's ability to get into our environment."

Evolving VA's EHR

Council took over VA's IT operations in the midst of a push to modernize its homegrown electronic health record system VistA. It's an interesting time for the system: The Defense Department derailed a bid to extend a commercial version of the open-source VistA to cover active-duty military, families and retirees in its recent $9 billion EHR procurement. So VistA will have to find a way to survive on its own while evolving to meet the changing needs of the organization.

Employees have a cultural attachment to VistA, Council acknowledged. "I think there always has to be a balance between the attachment and the need," she said. "The first need of VistA is to ensure that we can have the care and manage the care of our veterans appropriately. That always has to be the most important reason for VistA."

Council has deep roots in the private sector, but VistA was on her radar screen long before she took the job at VA. As the top IT officer at pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, she met with VA officials to talk about how VistA could better interoperate with and extend to the private sector.

"I'm a big supporter of open‑source technologies, open‑source software, moving innovation through an open‑source cycle because it can create...opportunity to do things very differently, but also opportunity to use a tool which you might not be able to afford otherwise," she said. "I think VistA creates that cycle. It looks different, and it is different from the other products out there."

She said her work with the VistA Evolution Program, which was created in 2013 to modernize the system, consists of "really making sure that it's not just a labor of love because we created it, but it always is in a position to be the right tool to engage the veteran in the best ways possible and ensure that we can provide a connected care profile and support them."

Adapting to government and VA culture

Council's shift to government has not been without some surprises, both good and bad.

"There's always been this point of view that government is slow, it's cumbersome," she said. "But in reality, what I've seen are really dedicated, hardworking folks who work through issues that you don't have to deal with in private industry."

At the same time, her vision of assembling an all-star team in the VA executive suite is bumping up against federal hiring practices.

"I fear that we won't have the opportunity to have the team engage and then be able to build, without the leaders, a really dynamic organization because of some of the difficulty and because it's really hard to get the message out." she said. "That is a huge difference [between the public and private sectors] from that vantage point.… If you really want people like myself to come in, I will tell you those people who have other opportunities probably...won't wait months."

Still, Council is eager to make the case to private-sector talent that VA is looking for new senior leaders, even if she can't farm out the search to a favorite corporate headhunter.

"We've got some new roles that are being put in place that are really dynamic and outstanding," she said. "They're big. They're meaty. They're fun."

On the procurement side, meanwhile, Council is used to being able to tap her contacts at labs and vendors to see what kind of technology is in the pipeline and how it might benefit her organization.

In the public sector, "with the number of rules, you can't have those conversations," she said. "I think in IT, it becomes a little bit of a hindrance because you're not able to stay engaged with the new and the brightest and understand what you can really bring forward to your partners."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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