In an indication of the major challenges new Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker faces in the first few months of his job, the VA inspector general has found "systemic problems" in IT project management at the agency.
Since taking over, Baker has begun to implement major changes to the VA's project management regime, including temporary stoppage of 45 projects that were over budget and behind schedule, a new project management methodology that requires projects to meet their milestones and budget, and increased reliance on metrics such as a goal to meet at least 80% of all project milestones.
"We need to do something, not small change, but big change, to change the culture that systems get developed in," Baker said in an interview last month.
One of the projects Baker stopped, the Replacement Scheduling Application, sits at the center of the inspector general's investigation. The VA is looking to potentially overhaul the project, but before being stopped, the new custom-developed patient appointment scheduling application was 17 months behind schedule and 110% over budget, and had yet to go operational nine years after the project was started.
The inspector general's report found a lack of program and requirements training, a lack of necessary in-house technology expertise, and an "improperly" changed project scope all contributed to its failure. The report pointed out that these problems paralleled findings of reports about several previous IT project failures.
"In our opinion the failure of the RSA project is linked to larger systemic problems relating to the management and implementation of IT projects within VA," the report said. "If VA had both experienced individuals to effectively plan and manage the development and implementation of complex IT projects and an adequate system to monitor and identify program and contracting problems impacting the progress of a project, effective and timely decisions could have been made to either redirect or terminate the project."
Specifically, in the case of the Replacement Scheduling Application, no single leader guided overall implementation, there was no overarching risk manager, no integrated project plan, and frequent management churn, while training money was used for other purposes than the RSA project.
The VA inspector general suggested that the VA take a number of steps to shore up IT project management at the agency. VA offices should be "empowered, resourced, structured and trained" for big IT projects, project status assessments should be "realistic and objective," decision-makers should have more technical knowledge, and stakeholders should be more actively involved in decision-making.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, requested the report. "It's another step in getting to the bottom of technology and management issues and getting to the bottom of them for the nation's veterans," said a spokeswoman for the Senate committee. "The committee is committed to strong oversight and to making sure the VA has all the tools they need."
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