GCN INTERVIEW | Harold Gracey, VA systems go-getter

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Gracey, principal
deputy assistant secretary for information and technology and acting head of the new
office, oversees VA’s computers and telecommunications networks for medical
information, veterans benefits payments, life insurance pro- grams and financial
management systems.


VA’s WAN connects the department headquarters offices, three data centers, 172
medical centers, 58 benefits offices, more than 600 outpatient facilities and more than
200 VA counseling centers.


As acting head of the new office, he also serves as the department’s chief
information officer.


Ultimately, he will be the deputy CIO once West names a permanent assistant secretary.


Gracey has a bachelor’s degree from John Hopkins University and a master’s in
public administration from George Washington University.


GCN staff writer Frank Tiboni interviewed Gracey at his VA headquarters office.


What’s more



Age: 50
Family: Wife, Donna; three children
Pets: Two dogs, two birds and a goldfish
Last book read: Cold Mountain by Charles
Frazier
Motto: “Try to learn something every day
from everyone you meet.’’
Personal hero: “My father. He worked
seven days a week to give us opportunities he never had.’’
Dream job: “Selling snow cones at the
beach or a job that lets me concentrate more on my family.’’




GCN: Why did the Veterans
Affairs Department create the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Information and
Technology?


GRACEY: VA had the office under consideration for some time. When Secretary Togo West
arrived in an acting capacity in January, it was one of the issues that came to his
attention early. He put some of us to work on setting forth the issues for him in the
spring.


We presented him with some ideas and he made the decision fairly quickly to go ahead
and separate [the office from the Chief Financial Office] because the operation was big
enough and important enough to veterans that it needed to be done.


GCN: The office has been
open for a few months now. How is everything going?


GRACEY: Everything is going pretty well. This is an organization that I came into when
I joined VA in 1983. So for me, it’s kind of like coming home. It’s an
organization I knew fairly well and have been involved with a lot over the years.


GCN: You are the acting
assistant secretary in the new office. When will VA name a full-time assistant secretary?


GRACEY: The position is a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed job. That process
is one that takes some time. So I’m not sure when it will be filled. It could be soon
if there is somebody in government already. It could be a while if it’s somebody from
the outside.


GCN: Have you applied for
the position?


GRACEY: I’m a long-time, career federal civil servant.


I have been appointed here actually as principal deputy assistant secretary, so
I’ll act when there is no assistant secretary. When an assistant secretary comes,
I’ll drop back to that principal deputy job but stay in this organization.


I’m interested in the position but have not applied for it. It is not something
I’ll do because I have almost 30 years in and do not have interest in a political
job.


GCN: A July General
Accounting Office report concluded that VA has not fully implemented the requirements of
the Information Technology Management Reform Act. Was the new office created in response
to that report?


GRACEY: The office is something VA had in the works. It was not in response to the GAO
report. The GAO report is kind of a general review of what needs to be done to satisfy the
requirements of the Clinger-Cohen act and where we are.


We are in a position where we have some steps to take to be completely compliant. I
think we have taken some good steps. I think there is a lot of work that remains to be
done.


I think GAO is fairly on point with where we need to go and what we need to do. I think
the good news is we started some of the steps. Things are moving, so it’s not a
Square 1 issue for us.


GCN: You have knowledge of
VA’s systems work for the past 15 years. What are the department’s most pressing
needs?


GRACEY: One would be replacing of our Integrated Data Communications Utility. This is
the network over which we move data between our thousand sites that we have in the
organization.


We’re in the 10th year of a 10-year contract, which expires next summer. We need
to strategize how we’re going to replace that and move on. It’s the glue that
ties the 1,000 locations of VA together and makes us work. So that’s an important
one.


We have a project going called the One VA Architecture. It is a document that attempts
to draw a picture of how VA should look from the perspective of using technology to serve
our customers. We are then filling in pieces of the picture with various projects.


This is in the approval stage through our strategic management process. One VA
Architecture will be critical to us because it deals with how veterans can be given better
access to VA through the use of technology and how we can do a better job of serving them.


GCN: What are the
differences between your current position and your old position as chief of staff for the
department?


GRACEY: The chief of staff position was an interesting one because it was working daily
with the secretary, deputy secretary and other top leaders of the department on the big
policy issues and operational issues. It was a fun job.


I worked with the White House, other federal departments and some with Capitol Hill. It
was an exciting job. There was also a lot of interaction with veterans service
organizations.


This new job has the same kind of excitement. There is a lot to be done. It is another
opportunity to serve veterans better, to work to improve the way this government
organization works to help the people it was put in place to serve.


VA is a unique place because it has such an easily identifiable and important group of
folks who it was designed to serve: people who have served in the military. You get to
meet a lot of heroes, people who have done more for their country than the average person.


To work in a government institution where you provide direct service, where you can
tell if you’re doing a good job and see that you’re helping people, is very
exciting.


GCN: What is the status of
VA’s year 2000 work?


GRACEY: As of August, VA systems are 94 percent renovated, with more than 300
applications that are mission-critical. About 84 percent of these systems have been
validated, some 62 percent have gone into production or are running. We think that is very
good shape.


We are planning to try and have everything in place, easily with nine months to go and
hopefully more. So by January, February, March, I expect to say we’re 100 percent
done. We’ve implemented a lot, and we’re heavy into running it in the production
environment to make sure everything continues to work.


GCN: It sounds as if
you’re pretty well ahead. What do you attribute that to?


GRACEY: Getting on the project early and having some good folks work on it. We’ve
stayed on it; we’ve stayed in touch; we’ve had meetings. We deal with each
other. The secretary and deputy secretary have been personally involved.


I still think we have things to be concerned about. It’s never over until
it’s over. I think everybody will feel better when they wake up Jan. 1, 2000, and
everything is still running and working well, especially in our hospital system.


We also have to worry about the infrastructure outside VA, such as power companies and
medical devices. We’ll have some contingency plans in place. On the benefits side, we
have similar concerns with small banks where veterans benefits checks are deposited.
Veterans need not worry about their benefits on a large scale.


GCN: What are VA’s
top challenges?


GRACEY: VA runs the biggest health care system in the United States. That has its own
challenges as health care costs go up and medicine changes probably faster than anything.


VA also runs a $20 billion benefits program that pays benefits out to veterans and
their dependents. There are a lot issues with how you do that in a modern way. We are a
customer service organization. How you do the best job in a time when government budget
receives so much focus and is shrinking? How do you deliver good or even better service
with fewer resources? These are the big challenges. So far we have been doing that.


GCN: What are some tips
and techniques for becoming a successful government executive?


GRACEY: The way to be successful is to keep an open mind, collect facts, analyze them,
make decisions and then give advice based on how you see the facts and how you interpret
them. And be honest and open. That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am.  

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