VA gives the go ahead to its 'ruthless' IT reduction plans

Wednesday - 10/19/2011, 7:25pm EDT

Stephen Warren, principal deputy assistant secretary in the office of information and technology and principal deputy chief information officer, VA

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Don't be surprised to see Roger Baker and Stephen Warren walk around the Veterans Affairs Department in the coming months and personally remove printers from desks.

Baker, VA's assistant secretary in the Office of Information and Technology and chief information officer, and Warren, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the office of information and technology and principal deputy chief information officer, are putting into action the recommendations made by the Ruthless Reduction Task Force to squeeze more savings out of their technology spend.

VA's IT budget was $3.1 billion in 2011 and the agency requested about the same for 2012.

The task force submitted its final recommendations — a 104-page report — to Baker and Warren earlier this month detailing IT areas that are ripe within VA to reduce spending.

"We pulled our senior staff together and said 'the [budget] wall is coming,'" Warren said. "We had been fortunate we'd been running on a reasonable budget path, but we saw where things were going and we needed to make sure we were efficiently utilizing all the resources we had. We told them to leave no rock unturned."

Warren said VA is estimating it can save or avoid spending about $50 million in 2012.

Warren highlighted several of the task force's recommendations:

  • Get rid of desk side printers. "Why does someone need a desk side printer?"

  • Move to multifunction devices. "Use that copier-fax machine as a printer. Get away from those things that cost you money."

  • You can't have a laptop and a desktop. "Get to efficiency, one or the other."

  • Reevaluate who needs a mobile device. "It shouldn't be a convenience. It needs to be there for mission delivery. One of the largest unconstrained costs that CIOs are faced with are their communications costs. So how do you get your arms around that?"

  • Consolidate contracts. "We're working on a couple of at enterprise contracts to reduce our prices down. We are reviewing every one of our contracts. We are looking at what our spend was last year, what our spend was the year before and what are folks projecting and asking why it's costing that much? What are they getting for it? We don't accept the amount you spent last year as a given to be the amount you spend this year. We challenge every dollar to make sure those resources are applied to the greatest value to the veteran."

  • Virtualization. "You don't need server for every application. Figure out how to use the technology."

"We've already started moving out on some of them. But effectively what we do now is we take this great concept and operationalize it," Warren said. "We will work with the acquisition folks to make sure we don't buy these printers unless there is a clear mission need for them. We will work with the folks who need to write the policy, to write it, staff it, and put it through the governance process and make it a reality."

Warren said the report is more than something that looks good on paper, but every initiative will have an owner and the CIO's office will hold them accountable through monthly progress report meetings.

"There is a lot of focus on outcomes, commitments and measuring and constantly interrogating, 'Are you there yet? Why not? Let's keep moving. What do you need from me?'" Warren said.

Shared sacrifice

While several of these initiatives seem straightforward, Warren said removing desktop printers or asking employees to choose a laptop or a desktop becomes as much an emotional issue as a logical one.

"When you get into that conversation everybody understands shared sacrifice is necessary for us as we go forward. Things you have counted on in the past aren't necessarily needed," he said. "We need to be truly thinking about how do we squeeze the most outcome out of every dollar we get? It's a lot of conversations. It's a lot of consultations and sometimes it's a decision by fiat, again with support by the leadership, 'we aren't talking about this anymore folks. This is costing us a lot of money, whether in the IT account or in the other accounts. Let's get away from this. Let's do a better utilization of these resources.'"

Warren said the use of mobile devices is another one that will take some time to implement, but the payoff is huge.

"Many organizations have their own relationship with a telecommunications provider, and what you find is there is an overhead for every single contract you have with every single provider," he said. "If you go do your search and say how many contracts do we have with provider A? You will find multiples. If you go to provider A and do a single contract, you can drive your prices down by 10-to-15 percent."