Baker leaving VA a transformed IT organization

Wednesday - 3/6/2013, 2:13pm EST

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There may be no better example of a federal chief information officer fulfilling the Office of Management and Budget's mantra of doing more with less than Roger Baker.

The outgoing assistant secretary for information and technology and chief information officer at the Veterans Affairs Department has transformed his IT organization to focus more on the customers inside and out of the agency and, in the process, found $1.6 billion in efficiencies to reinvest in mission-critical programs.

Baker will be the first to admit VA's technology programs are far from perfect. He's heard the criticism about the Veterans Benefit Management System (VBMS) and has experienced a grilling on Capitol Hill over the integrated joint electronic health record system VA is developing with the Defense Department.

But Baker, whose last day is March 8, also knows he's leaving VA in much better shape than he found it.

"The VA IT organization is clearly an engine today for the transformation of VA. When you are hitting 80 percent of your milestones on all of your IT development projects, it means that your customers, by-and-large, rely on you to deliver what you've committed to deliver from a software and systems standpoint, and that changes the dynamic," he said. "It's a very, very reliable organization and that has helped transform the VA dramatically."

At the same time, Baker said the project oversight and governance effort, called the Program Management and Accountability System (PMAS), also helped the agency quickly stop problematic or lower priority development programs and move to mission-critical systems.

Ruthless reduction effort paid off

Over the last four years, Baker said VA has saved or avoided spending $1.6 billion through the Ruthless Reduction Task Force effort.

"I'd love to see that kind of focus in a lot of areas in government where they are focused on how do I make certain I'm getting the maximum dollar out of every dollar that is spent?" he said. "As a taxpayer, that's what I want to see."

Baker had the ability to move money from one project to another because he has full control over every IT dollar the agency spends, an authority that he's been vocal in advocating for every federal CIO to have.

That ability to reprogram money helped VA address a 40 percent increase in the demand for its services over the last two years when the department's IT budget remained flat or decreased.

The focus on management and discipline around IT is a small example of the broader changes going on at VA. Baker said Secretary Eric Shinseki and Deputy Secretary Scott Gould have instilled a culture that requires program managers to detail and meet expectations and, if not, explain why and what they are doing about it.

"We have said we are going to end the claims backlog by 2015. There are a lot of things in motion to make that happen," Baker said. "We haven't achieved that goal yet. But the fact that the goal hasn't been achieved shouldn't distract anyone from the level of effort, the level of commitment and the level of results that are currently ongoing to accomplish that goal. The Secretary talks to me about that every morning in our everyday meeting. Where are we in accomplishing that? What's standing in the way? How are we going to make certain we are making it there? That level of discipline is permeating VA."

Agile approach to VBMS

VA is under pressure from veterans, from lawmakers and others to address the backlog. The Veterans Benefit Management System is struggling to expand beyond the initial 18 offices.

Baker said those problems are not surprising as VA updates and expands the system every two months under the agile development approach.

"The VBMS met its plan for 18 offices by the end of December. We have rolled into additional offices since then," he said. "There are 56 regional offices inside of the Veterans Benefits Administration. VBMS will be at all of those offices by the end of 2013 and, realistically, significantly before that. We are seeing real improvements from turning the paper process into a much more digital one. But the next step is to turn the flow of information from, we get paper and we turn it into digits, to we get digits."

Baker said the goal is to get to the point where no claim takes longer than 125 days.

As for his future, Baker is unsure of what he will do next. He said he expects to stay in the federal community and could see himself having a third stint in government.