VA has had more interim CIOs than permanent ones since 2009
Since 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs has had more acting chief information officers than permanent ones. And the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Information Technology Modernization is worried about all that revenue.
After the Senate confirmed Roger Baker in 2009 as Deputy Secretary of the Office of Information and Technology and CIO, VA only had two other permanent CIOs: LaVerne Council and James Grfrerer. The average tenure of an interim CIO is more than 10 months, including one that lasted nearly two years, according to the committee’s research.
Dr Neil Evans, Managing Director of Connected Care and who serves as deputy secretary for information and technology and CIO, became the sixth interim technology manager since 2009 at the end of August.
Rep Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), A leading member of the IT Modernization Subcommittee, said this was one of the main reasons VA continually struggled with large IT projects.
“VA cannot afford to stand still. Operating under the direction of an interim CIO is no excuse for standing still, ”said Rosendale. “Information technology has nothing to do with ideology or the party. It’s about results. In the case of the VA, it is about continually improving the quality and accessibility of care and benefits for our veterans. I know government bureaucracies tend to value titles and resist change. Confirmation from the Senate confers authority. However, it would be unacceptable to simply keep the seat warm until the administration nominates a candidate and the Senate proceeds to act on it. “
It is unclear where the Biden administration stands on its plans to appoint a permanent deputy secretary and CIO.
It took about 19 months for the Trump administration to appoint Grfrerer, and it took more than two years for the Obama administration to appoint the board after Baker served about five years as CIO.
It is not uncommon to have acting CIOs, especially in a place like VA where the Assistant Secretary requires confirmation from the Senate. But it’s also why Rosendale is so concerned about the impact of having another interim CIO and whether it will slow down critical programs to serve veterans.
Don’t just walk on water
Rosendale wants to make sure Evans has the authority, senior management support and plans to move forward with IT modernization programs.
“The worst thing for the ILO… to stand still until a new Deputy Secretary is confirmed. So what are your goals? What do you plan to accomplish as the new ILO Director, during the interim? He asked Evans.
After some back and forth, Evans said he is focused on improving the digital experience for veterans, making sure the infrastructure is reliable and modern, and providing services through platforms for ensure they are agile and can be upgraded as needed.
Rosendale’s concerns follow the success of the past few years for VA.
Evans and his staff released a mid-year update on the progress of IT modernization.
“We have moved 133 applications to the cloud; we have 82 in progress. There are still around 400 internally developed apps, but we’ve reduced our custom development from 57% in 2019 to 45% in 2021, ”Simpson said at a press briefing on September 23. “We continue to evolve into that model, where I think we get that security legacy through software as a service products and through commercial products (COTS) and through the cloud. “
VA has also upgraded its network infrastructure which has supported over 12.5 million telehealth appointments in the past 20 months.
“We now have over 95% of our primary care providers, mental health care providers and many of our specialists who can deliver care through telehealth. It’s now something they can do, it’s part of their treatment choices, part of what they can offer patients, ”said Evans. “I think we’re going to continue to see growth there. We will continue to see the growth of inpatient telehealth applications and the engagement of veterans through technologies closer to where they are.
Hearing scheduled for October
This is exactly why Rosendale and other lawmakers are worried about the decade-long challenge of retaining a long-term CIO.
Committee assistants, however, did not support the idea of a term named CIO as a solution to this problem.
Instead, the committee would like to ensure that Secretary Denis McDonough gives Evans, or whatever acting CIO, the power to do more than just stand still on IT modernization.
This question could arise during the committee’s scheduled hearing in October with VA Assistant Secretary Donald Remy.
VA is one of five ministerial-level agencies without a permanent CIO. The White House has appointed John Sherman as CIO of the Department of Defense, but the departments of Treasury, Home Affairs, and Health and Human Services remain under the interim leadership of the IOC. Other DoD and VA CIOs need Senate confirmation.
The good news for VA is that the OI&T staff bring a wealth of experience and many were former CIOs themselves, so they know the challenges of moving the ship forward. Add to that Evans’ experience as a head of connected care and a practicing physician, it seems clear that VA’s technology leadership understands the pain that slowing IT modernization efforts would cause.
Rosendale and other lawmakers just want reassurance that McDonough and Remy understand the problem the same way.