GAO, House at odds with VA over how to improve architecture

GAO, House at odds with VA over how to improve architecture

Department says plan to tweak systems would suit its bureaus; GAO says it falls short of integration

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The General Accounting Office is questioning a Veterans Affairs Department proposal to create what the department calls 'One VA,' particularly plans for systems development.

At a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, GAO officials said the VA plans fly in the face of best practices for creating an enterprise systems architecture as recommended by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

GAO's Joel Willemssen says he expects the VA plan to fail.

VA's approach to the task could waste taxpayer money and result in mismanaged information technology projects, said Joel C. Willemssen, director of GAO's Civil Agencies Information Systems Accounting and Information Management Division.

The GAO criticisms came during the same hearing last month in which its auditors and VA's inspector general attacked the department's computer security (see story, Page 1).

VA wants to tweak systems and processes now in place in its three main bureaus: Veterans Benefits Administration, Veterans Health Administration and National Cemetery Administration. The plan calls for better integrating systems for data sharing across bureaus, but it would also give bureaus free rein over their systems.

The approach makes sense, said Allen Gohrband, associate deputy assistant secretary for IT policy and program assistance.

'The issue is that we have some divergent business lines with very little overlap,' Gohrband said. 'Except for core veteran information, each of those [bureaus] require specific information for each process.'

For example, the National Cemetery Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration aren't interested in what types of medication a veteran takes or how many days he spends in the hospital, he said.

GAO has complained to Congress before about VA's plans, but as of mid-May, the department had made no changes, Willemssen said.

Although VA officials told subcommittee members they would reconsider current IT planning processes, VA has taken no action since the hearing, Gohrband said.

To avoid duplicating systems efforts within the three bureaus, VA wants to create what it calls a departmentwide logical architecture that focuses on crosscutting areas and interdependencies, Willemssen said. But he said it has no intention of developing an appropriate systems architecture.

VA this month expects to hire a contractor to help it develop a detailed plan for its logical architecture and to assist in implementing that architecture.

Gohrband disagreed with GAO's contention that VA lacks an IT infrastructure. VA does have a common data network and e-mail system, as well as standard PC software, Gohrband said. 'The issue is that we do have an infrastructure IT architecture.'

But Willemssen doubts the VA strategy for developing its logical architecture will produce an integrated departmentwide architecture. 'In fact, VA acknowledges in its plan that the architectures developed by the [bureaus] will not provide a unified picture of the department's architecture,' he said during the hearing.

Tracking expenses

GAO also reported that VA lacks a uniform method for tracking IT costs. Specifically, the department does not break out personnel expenses from its overall IT costs.

Gohrband said VA does adequately monitor IT expenses. The department's capital investment process tracks all IT expenditures above $250,000, he said.''Increasing efforts are being made to track amounts below that threshold,' he said.'In addition, there is a capital investment board that tracks expenditures of more than $1 million.

But Willemssen said until VA develops a better way to track IT expenditures, it will be less likely to make informed decisions on whether to modify, cancel, accelerate or continue systems projects.

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