VA’s digital transformation is new CIO’s “North Star” goal


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Veterans Affairs wants to be a leader in digital transformation for the federal government.

The size and scope of the agency, VA leaders believe, gives it a unique opportunity to demonstrate how change could work.

Kurt DelBene, the VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology and chief information officer, said he plans to build on and accelerate the progress the VA has made over the past decade.

Kurt DelBene is the VA Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology and Chief Information Officer.

“As we begin to modernize our core stack, we are engaged in a large number of system transformations, a colossal number from business standards alone. Currently, we are updating our financial management and logistics systems. We enable us to support caregivers by improving our delivery systems. And we’re also transforming our electronic health records system,” DelBene said in a recent chat with reporters. “Our goal is to innovate and to bring industry best practices and cutting-edge technology to AV. We also strive to deliver a world-class digital experience for veterans. We’ve dramatically improved both user satisfaction and usage. online customers of our veterans, enabling veterans to streamline their health care disabilities and education benefits, payments and t other information that has an impact on their daily lives.

DelBene doesn’t underestimate the challenge ahead either. VA employs 400,000 doctors, nurses, medical professionals, benefit process and a host of other professions. It owns nearly 6,300 buildings, including 1,200 health facilities, many of which are on average 60 years old.

VA’s IT budget alone exceeds $8 billion and over $1 billion in technical debt, which will require DelBene to balance keeping current technology running with its security, while modernizing.

“Modernization is a key challenge that we face every day with a sustained effort,” said DelBene, which the Senate confirmed in December. “I aspire to bring what I have learned to the commercial sector and work with what VA OIT has already done to continue our digital transformation. VA OIT has become a leader not only in VA, but in the entire space federal. And I want to keep us at the forefront of the foundation. That means working with stakeholders on a clearly articulated vision of what they’re doing to deliver to veterans, caregivers, and their families, and then integrating that and interpret it into a program for our technological innovation. We then need to develop clear action plans that are agile and adapt to our changing needs. We need measures of success or indicators that measure the end-user results.And then our resources need to be clearly allocated based on those priorities in a way that it’s clear how they fit and fit together.

Provide benefits to veterans

DelBene isn’t the first CIO to come to VA with a big vision and set of goals. Over the past 13 years, VA has seen its share of IT executives come in and out — now four Senate-confirmed assistant secretaries and CIOs since 2009 with an average tenure of 18 months.

Congress and other VA clients have decried inconsistent leadership around technology at the policy level. Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), a ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on IT Modernization, said in October that inconsistent leadership is one of the main reasons VA continually struggles with big guns. IT projects.

DelBene, to his credit, seems acutely aware of the challenges facing VA. This is his second stint in government, working as a senior adviser to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in December 2013 on the team to help fix He was also part of the Defense Innovation Board in 2020 and 2021.

“If there’s one thing I hope to hang my hat on at the end of the day, it’s to be a part of this transformation. It just delivers benefits across the spectrum. What you deliver is more focused. You are agile and react to changing needs. Your resource allocation is better, the results are better because they are linked to the needs of the end user. It simply offers advantages all along the line. “, he said. “That’s where I think I know a lot of things, and. I hope, as you can see, it excites me.

Some of this excitement stems from the progress VA has made during the pandemic. The agency has proven how nimble it can be when implementing new and modern technologies, such as expanding and securing its network to handle more than 16 million telehealth visits and moving 400 000 employees to remote work in the past two years.

“We were doing about 40,000 telehealth visits a month, and now we’re doing about 40,000 telehealth visits a day. Another caveat, we’ve quadrupled our bandwidth, and that bandwidth has been rolled into our sustainment. So we’re counting on that for years to come,” said Todd Simpson, VA Deputy Undersecretary for Development, Security and Operations. “Just in my limited travels, talking to clinicians and others who work in medical centers, there’s no cultural way they want to back down. With some of the tech from our Dev/Sec/Ops store and the CTO store, I don’t think we will. We’ve created some really cool tools that have pretty much eliminated the need for a physical waiting room.

Agile development is the best option

DelBene said the pandemic and other efforts over the past few years have given VA a kind of “north star.” He said that means developing more agile development practices so that VA can build new apps or update apps in hours or days instead of weeks or months.

He said VA is looking at low-code, no-code platforms, using more containers to move applications from one cloud or data center to another, and creating a software factory to oversee all of these. efforts.

“The base exists within the organization that we just need to accelerate overall, having a DevSecOps mindset is a really powerful approach. I think the team organized around that is how they deliver solutions. Another one that I think is transformative is that we have a really big investment in security. It’s one of the first places I went when I got here saying, ‘Say tell us what your security posture looks like.” We’re building a modern infrastructure to bring all of our logging activities together. So we can make inferences through that about potential security threats. I feel good about foundation, but we can do more there,” DelBene said. “I think we have a very active cloud migration strategy, which I want to build on as well. It’s about sorting out the portfolio of apps you have and deciding which ones you’ll modernize and which ones you’ll actually containerize and put in the cloud. Which ones do you want sunset? I think we can build on that as well.

VA has also already moved 133 apps to the cloud and has 82 more in the works. It still has around 400 apps developed in-house, but the CIO’s office has worked to reduce the use of custom development from 57% in 2019 to 45% in 2021.

The customer experience at the center of our concerns

DelBene also inherits a new cyber strategy released in October that outlines five goal areas and dozens of sub-goals. VA struggled to resolve long-standing issues ranging from fixes, centralized management, governance and risk management, to lack of documentation and accounting to resolve over 15,000 disaster plans. actions and milestones. The VA Inspector General’s latest report on the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) found that the Enterprise Cyber ​​Security Strategy Program (ECSP) is making progress in closing gaps and resolving The problems.

“Cybersecurity is always at the forefront. Protecting departmental information assets is a key priority, which includes protecting veteran information and the systems that store, process and transmit information. To do this, we rely on a balanced approach to risk management, as is also done in the industry. Here we need to establish a clear and clear internal vision to secure the organization by leveraging frameworks such as zero trust under the NIST framework, while improving our compliance with mandates such as FISMA and the recent regulation 140208 of the OMB,” he said. “Data management and analytics is another key to accessing a modern data infrastructure with excellent data management that will help us better serve veterinarians and take advantage of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence algorithms that may create new information to again help us better serve our customers. Process automation is also essential, just like in the commercial sector. This includes becoming excellent at analyzing processes, identifying key leverage points, and then using great tools like low-code and no-code platforms to automate those key processes.

All of these efforts are supported by the continuous improvement of VA’s customer experience. Over the past 15 years, VA has grown from a 45% customer satisfaction rate to nearly 75% today.

DelBene said he would like to introduce the concept of Net Promoter Score, which is a way to measure customer experience and predict business growth.

“The Net Promoter Score has particular benefits that we appreciate in the industry sector, and I think it’s applicable here as well. I mean, at its core, though, it’s kind of like you see an experience and you see what the experience is like in the consumer space and then what the experience is like when you go to The ease of use for the consumer should be similar,” he said. said “There should be a simple connection. There should be a pleasant experience that you see above all else, as here is the journey map of the things you can do on this site. We will use standard methodologies and then talk to veterans and see what the gaps are and gradually close those gaps.


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