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Q&A: Veterans Affairs CIO Explains IT Overhaul

The recently appointed Chief Information Officer of the Department of Veterans Affairs discusses why 45 IT projects were put on hold and his plan for avoiding the mistakes of the past.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has experienced a number of well-publicized IT failures, most recently the February collapse of a patient scheduling application project that was 17 months behind schedule and 110% over budget.

The federal agency's new CIO, Roger Baker, is updating the department's project management processes, and he plans to revamp or cut projects that are over budget and behind schedule. Last month, Baker put the brakes on 45 projects that were more than a year behind schedule or 50% over budget. InformationWeek talked to the VA's CIO about that decision and the long-term changes to come.

InformationWeek: Can you give us some background on the decision to temporarily stop those 45 projects?

Baker: In February, the VA had a very public failure of the patient scheduling application, and the secretary [Gen. Eric Shinseki] did a five-hour review with everybody there. They just walked him through how it got to that point. As a result of that, he ordered a complete review of all ongoing IT projects at Veterans Affairs.

When I stepped through the door, waiting for me was a spreadsheet that evaluated all 307 ongoing IT projects, especially on a particular set of attributes: Where were they on their original schedule? Where were they on their original budget? Did they have access to all the resources necessary to succeed? If you sorted that spreadsheet, you very quickly came to decision criteria that said, for 45 of our ongoing projects, they're either more than a year behind schedule or more than 50% over budget, and we said, we need to change the culture that systems get developed in.

I pulled out an approach to systems development that I had been thinking about for several years. We looked at it with senior IT folks and the deputy secretary and briefed all the senior managers inside VA, and came to a unanimous decision that that’s what we needed to do.

We needed to implement incremental development and very strong and stringent management and milestones so that projects that consistently failed to meet milestones got stopped and their direction got changed. This is not going to be a painless process. We're halting 45 projects. Not everybody believes that was a good idea, but the bottom line is that we are going to change systems development inside Veterans Affairs, and the only way you make a decision like that is with a secretary who's willing to stand up for it.

InformationWeek: Can you walk us through a project that exemplifies the need to change, like the patient scheduling project? What went wrong there?

Baker: A lot of times, IT management is about hard decisions, and the culture at VA on the systems management process has been about avoidance of hard decisions. It's easier to get more taxpayer money than to wrestle with the internal political issues that might cause you to have a hard discussion about whether the requirements are still valid, whether you'll actually be able to deliver on it, whether you need to change staff or change vendors.

All those things are hard to do inside government, and if you don't make yourself, you find yourself in an environment where it's easier to go to the Hill and get another $26 million to extend the program than to make the hard decisions necessary to fix the program. A lot of what [the Project Management Accountability System] is intended to do is to force the hard decisions, to say, look, if a project can't make its milestones, it must be having problems.

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