VA creating A-Team to tackle complex projects

Thursday - 6/20/2013, 6:13am EDT

The Veterans Affairs Department is borrowing a Defense Department concept and creating a cadre of program and project-management experts.

VA would call upon these experts for help when complex projects are in need of some extra care.

Glenn Haggstrom, VA's principal executive director of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction, said the experts would have advanced certifications and an array of experience in everything from technology and pharmaceuticals to medical/surgical programs.

"While we traditionally think of program and project management in both the construction world and the IT world, we are expanding that view in terms of having professionals available to us," Haggstrom said in an interview with Federal News Radio after speaking at a recent conference. "We've stood up an acquisition executive council that takes the positions we have in the department and where they are located, and we look at where they are located and determine if is it appropriate for these programs to have Program, Project Management certification and training. We then start to match faces to the spaces."

PPM certification is defined by the Federal Acquisition Institute as an employee attaining competencies and experience associated with each of the three levels and ensuring 80 hours of continuous learning is achieved every two years. "An applicant can satisfy the competency requirements through successful completion of suggested training, completion of comparable education or certification programs, or demonstration of knowledge, skills, and abilities."

Successful outcomes

Haggstrom said the VA still is in the beginning stages of this effort. The council has found the areas where these skills are needed, and now are looking for the people to fill those roles.

"We believe that when we have this fully stood up, we will have a great cadre that we can reach into when we have very complex programs, get those best and the brightest to manage those programs and be successful in the outcomes," he said. "We are focused on ensuring we have the desired outcomes and we meet that success."

VA spent more than $17 billion on federal contracts in fiscal 2012, according to the USASpending.gov portal. Haggstrom said many times the growing complexity of the programs need more attention, and therefore the skills of the acquisition workforce need to be improved.

Since 2008, VA has made a huge investment in training with the VA Acquisition Academy. The academy includes five schools that provide training in program and project management, supply-chain management, contracting officer representative functions and facility management.

"In the past couple of years, we've certified about 1,600 to 1,700 people within the department. It was our secretary's initiative to make sure that we had people with the proper skills," Haggstrom said. "Of course, it's always a competition to get them trained in terms of their day-to-day jobs, but what we've done is we have distance learning, computer-based learning and face-to-face training at one of our acquisition academy. It's a continual process. Our folks are responding to it. I think we will see a difference in how the programs are managed and those outcomes."

To be clear, VA is not creating a new office or even a holding tank with these experts waiting to be called upon. Haggstrom said these experts will remain in their current roles, but also be pulled into new opportunities when appropriate.

Better decisions through data

In addition to the acquisition cadre, VA is buying smarter by mining its acquisition data.

Haggstrom said the Enterprise Data Office is a few years old, but the results of using data to make better buying decisions are paying off.

"We did stand up an enterprise spend management office that does a deep dive into our systems to take a look at what we were spending, where we were spending, how much we are spending, is it just in time deliver or are we warehousing," he said. "From that, we develop a hypothesis and the hypothesis is the on-set that is used to develop a further business case."

Haggstrom said one example of the business case turning into better buying is at the Veterans Health Administration. VHA created a commodity office that specializes in various areas of health care that have contracting requirements.

He said across the agency there are about 26 business cases under consideration and seven more under development.

"What we do is we'll data mine several systems, including our enterprise contract management system where we have all our contracts worth at least $3,000. We will data mine the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS). We'll data mine our financial systems," Haggstrom said. "So when we bring the information together from these three systems, it gives us a pretty idea of what we are spending, and what we are spending it on."