Opinion

The OI&T transformation at VA

LaVerne H. Council, Asst. Secretary for Information and Technology, Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology LaVerne H. Council.

In the right environment, people can deliver a higher return on investment than technology.

That is a bold statement from someone in my position. After all, as the CIO for an organization the size of a Fortune 500 company, I deal in technology daily.

But technology is nothing without the people behind it — and it is everything about the people using it.

When I came to VA's Office of Information and Technology last July, the first thing I did was take a critical look at the enterprise. What surprised me was not the difficult climb we faced; it was the potential already in the organization. More than half of our employees are veterans. With 8,000 employees and an additional 8,000 contractors, we touch nearly every facet of what VA does to serve our nation's veterans, from increasing their access to benefits, to enhancing their care with mobile technology, to protecting their privacy and data.

Our challenges are well documented, and our own internal analysis revealed key areas for growth -- areas like collaborating better with partners, increasing accountability and enabling more data-driven decision making. Identifying these challenges provides us with an opportunity to align our services to a veteran population with rapidly changing demographics and needs.

So we embarked on a sweeping transformation. We knew our challenges, but we also had the tools we needed to overcome them. We are refocusing our efforts on what keeps us moving, keeps us optimistic, and keeps us motivated: the veteran.

Veterans needed more from us. We needed to transform not only the way we were doing business, but our strategic role in improving the veteran experience. We needed to transform from a tactical participant in VA's mission to a world-class organization and true ally in developing strategy and finding solutions.

Driving change in an environment as complex as VA is not an easy task. I am using every muscle -- everything from 30 years in private industry -- to achieve success.

OI&T is modernizing its culture, processes and capabilities to create a world-class, customer-focused, veteran-centered service organization. VA Secretary Bob McDonald identified 12 myVA breakthrough priorities for this year. These 12 initiatives have direct impact on the veteran experience, and accomplishing the goals means that our veterans will have a VA more in tune with their needs this December than they did in January.

The most successful transformations happen from the inside out, so we embedded the myVA vision into our own enterprise transformation strategy. At its core, this process is not just about VA technology, it is about fundamentally refocusing our culture to center on the veteran, and that starts with our people.

We are bringing a level of accountability and full engagement to OI&T that is unprecedented. The balance between honesty and positive energy can be a tenuous one, but it is a balance that any involved leader accepts willingly and enthusiastically. Success is not necessarily about the numbers we can cite in a quarterly report. Success is about being able to set a course, motivate our people to accomplish it, and then continue to drive them toward that goal day after day and year after year.

Just as technology supports every element of modern life, VA technology should support every element of veteran care and services. Today, nearly two-thirds of the people in the U.S. own a smartphone. That means a significant portion of our 21.8 million former servicemembers has technology within arms' reach, and VA needs to provide the technological infrastructure to meet them where they are.

We have already made major strides in this transformation. We formed the Enterprise Cybersecurity Strategy Team and sent our strategy to Congress ahead of schedule. This strategy lays out an ambitious, carefully crafted approach to fully integrated cybersecurity. More importantly, its implementation gives VA the proactive, aggressive security posture it needs to safeguard veteran information in an increasingly complex cyber environment.

As soon as we addressed VA's security posture and began its implementation, we turned our attention to delivering real IT value to our veterans and business partners with more frequency and a higher degree of quality. We established an Enterprise Program Management Office to serve as a "control tower," building our momentum by managing all technological investments. The EPMO was established on February 1 of this year and is already overseeing our largest efforts, including Interoperability and VistA Evolution. The EPMO provides a single source to assess, evaluate, and improve the way we use our resources, including the consolidation of all of VA's IT release calendars into a single instance.

Most importantly, we took a long look at the Program Management Accountability System, or PMAS. We realized that our processes were placing a higher value on artifacts than on doing right by our veterans. We are replacing PMAS with the veteran-focused Integration Process, or VIP. Without losing any of the rigor or discipline in our development processes, we reduced the number of documents needed from 58 to seven. That 88 percent reduction in artifacts has the potential to avoid a significant amount of cost, and it ensures that we deliver as rapidly as we can. For example, we'll be jointly certifying interoperability with DoD, as mandated by the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, within a month -- well ahead of schedule.

We continue to hit milestones. We continue to make strides. But this transformation is just as much about the day-in and day-out perseverance that it takes to sustain lasting change.

Enduring transformation can happen only when people understand the vision and embrace change as a team. I believe that the expectations you set for yourself should always be higher than what others expect of you, and every morning I wake up remembering that I am serving one of the most important missions in our nation today.

While this is certainly about technology, it is also about much more: it is about people. It is about the people behind the code, and the veterans whose care is supported by our solutions. I ask our business partners, the public and our partners in Congress to work with us to achieve the goals we set forth... but also to help us focus on realizing this vision and transforming technology at VA. There is no other option.

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Reader comments

Thu, Sep 22, 2016

I know this article is dated but can't let this go. I agree with the comment of 3/29. Admiral Gauss started service lines, while sounding good in principal, he left before they got off the ground. Region 1 piloted SL's (I use the term loosely because they were going out the door, ready or not) and, like Ms Council is about to do, left before completion. Now we have a fragmented service line structure that does not communicate from one to another, pulls expertise from the facilities, and puts them in lofty places separated by fragmented helpdesk processes clinicians must endure to get support. As Ms Council is about to walk out the door she's rearranging the Service Line furniture with the lights out and creating even MORE discontinuity (not so ironically, cylinders sound a lot like silos). Saying there is a morale problem is an understatement.

Tue, Mar 29, 2016

The last comment the very reason IT is in the predicament it's in. We get a new leader every couple of years and they all go back to square-one. A couple of the comments have touched on one of the central problems, and that is morale. In my 20+ year, 15 of them as an FCIO, I've never had a problem motivating my staff until the last few years. While nobody can argue with OI&T needing to be its own pillar in the agency, it's clear that inconsistent leadership had resulted in chaos in the field. So I'll agree that Ms. Council needs to address the morale problem, and the first step in that process is to admit that there is a crisis in morale. Few IT people at my site, or VISN, or region seem to be happy.

Thu, Mar 24, 2016

I just simply disagree with the comments above. One person cannot change everything in less than one year. Does she have everything lined up and perfect? No. Is she perfect? No. But can we honestly say the programs before her did the very best for the VA and the Vets? Well, no, we cannot. Lets grant more patience to someone who fixed many a large problem before she got there. Please remember, she says people help make the change. Let's give her the benefit of more time.

Mon, Mar 21, 2016

It's interesting that they chose the word transformation. Much lick an octopus that changes it's colors to match its surrounding that's all that's happening under Ms. Council's watch. Even with some new faces in the crowd and some new titles for those who have remained, it's really the same game plan. Perhaps one day we'll get a CIO who starts in the field and works their way back to VACO. Most of us can only take cover and wait for the next ray of light to enter the position and hope that they aren't just here to push some get rich quick scheme while they hold the title. These are the darkest days in my thirty year career, and it looks like I'll go out on a low note for technology in the VA in part due to the low morale that the many CIOs have never bothered to address. Few units work well when nobody believes in their leadership and aren't willing to follow their lead.

Fri, Mar 18, 2016

I don't know the moral in the building but I do see the requirements that represent the described new look and they are extremely disappointing. The core companticy Veteran centralized IDentity calls for both O&M with references to the technology stack that has J2EE informing MUMPS. That is 25 year old technology informing 50 year old technology. The contract is restricted to the same T4 players and makes no reference to any national approach to a unified national health ID governance. Same people, doing the same things and intentionally "boxing out" the Comercial Market best of breed players. As a technologist it's disappointing, as a Veteran owned company I am not surprised, however as a Veteran who sees the impact to Soliders, Sailors, Airmen and Marines I am appalled to know that we will waist yet another 400 days and $50M to get to the same result we had in 2008.

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