The Department of Veterans Affairs has been re-engineering the way it manages its information technology projects, and it seems to have paid off. For fiscal 2011, VA managed to cross the finish line on 89 percent of its project milestones on time.
VA started its Performance Management and Accountability System (PMAS) in 2009. At that point, VA was up to schedule on fewer than 30 percent of its IT milestones. When fiscal year 2011 drew to a close, they were up to almost 90 percent, said Roger Baker, VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology and chief information officer.
“That’s a number that’s far in excess of anything I’ve ever seen in a development organization before, either private sector or public sector,” he said. “That’s a government organization — one of the largest in the world. And to me, it’s real example of a culture change.”
VA pulled it off by moving to a much more dynamic model for how it allocates its resources for developing technology projects. Instead of keeping individuals tasked to one project at a time, the department has moved to a model that moves its talent and dollars around in a much more dynamic fashion, based on the organization’s most pressing needs.
Additionally, projects that continue to languish and eat up budget dollars without producing new capabilities get killed off. VA cancelled or paused 45 IT projects in the opening stages of the project in 2009.
Baker said the 89 percent achievement was a surprise. Nonetheless, he thinks something within the same ballpark is sustainable.
“When we laid out what we wanted to do with PMAS, my stretch goal for our folks was that some day we should hit 80 percent,” he said. “The fact that in 2011 we hit 89 percent tells me that our metric was probably a little too low. It’s not a fluke. We’re there, and we intend to stay there.”
The PMAS approach now applies to all of VA’s technology development projects, and Baker describes it as a culture change that took a couple years to take hold. But the department spends more than $3 billion a year in its overall technology budget, and Baker thinks the concepts can translate into areas besides development.
“We’re now applying the same sort of approach on the operations side, and just making sure we can get maximum value out of every dollar we spend,” he said.
On the operations side, there’s an effort VA has termed the “ruthless reduction” project. It’s a pilot effort for now, but it’s aimed at getting rid of inefficient operational technology costs the VA believes it doesn’t need to continue paying.
The oft-cited example among VA technology execs is the fact that many individual employees have individual printers at their own desks, each consuming its own nonstandard and very expensive toner or ink cartridges on an a-la-carte basis.
Baker admits he has one on his desk too, and uses it when he gets lazy. But getting rid of those devices and pushing workgroups toward more efficient shared machines that can copy, print and fax could save up to $150 million in VA hospitals’ IT costs over the next five years.
“If we take that kind of approach in many different areas, we can start squeezing down extraneous dollars in the infrastructure and use them for things where we badly need more money,” he said. “We’re giving ourselves our own budget increases. We haven’t asked for more money in 2011 or 2012 on the IT side. We’re giving ourselves our own budget increase by just spending the dollars better.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.