OneVA planners hit it on the nose

OneVA planners hit it on the nose

'We came to the conclusion pretty early on that three architectures and one overarching VA architecture was not going to work,' Deputy CIO Edward Meagher said.

When the Veterans Affairs Department's Office of Information and Technology was developing the One VA Enterprise Architecture earlier this year, Secretary Anthony J. Principi demanded that it pass a simple sniff test.

'He said 'I do not want to smell the Veterans Health Administration or Veterans Benefits Administration. I want to smell One VA,' ' said Edward Meagher, deputy assistant secretary for IT and deputy CIO at VA.

VA technicians put in long hours planning the change, and VA officials took some unconventional steps to move the process along. But the department is headed in the direction the secretary wanted.

Principi wanted the department's major organizations to make unanimous decisions. This was the most significant challenge in drawing the blueprint, said Meagher, an early champion of the One VA architecture.

'Given the history and given the fact that each one of the administrations has taken its own path to solving problems, I knew we had to do something a little different,' Meagher said.

Meagher took the lead in developing the architecture, coordinating several unorthodox approaches.

To start, he contacted Leon Kappelman, associate professor of business computer information systems at the University of North Texas, who studied VA and its challenges.

'We came to the conclusion pretty early on that three architectures and one overarching VA architecture was not going to work,' Meagher said.

In the next step, the department recruited 20 of its 50 most senior staff members to work on the project. The members of the panel represent both the IT and business sides of VA's operations.

VA wanted the group to represent the decision-makers throughout its operations.

'Normally, things get vetted extensively around here, and we did not want that,' Meagher said. 'We wanted someone who could give us an irrevocable and nonreviewable commitment for his organization.'

Meagher hired professional facilitators and psychologists to help the panel move beyond any roadblocks that came up in the planning process.

For each decision the panel made, a vote was taken. 'And if it was not unanimous, it did not fly,' Meagher said. 'So it was the facilitators who got us together on something that we did not agree upon, and the psychologists would stop us and tell us what's really happening.'

Every Thursday for five weeks the 20 members, after working a full day, would huddle at the Bolger Center, a conference facility in Potomac, Md., and work through midnight. They would gather again at 7 a.m. Friday and put in 18 hours on the project, and meet again at 7 a.m. on Saturday and work until 7 p.m.

'All 20 of us had to be there, and there were no substitutes,' Meagher said. 'You had to be there at every meeting, there were no exceptions and no sending someone else in your place.'

If the committee could not agree on an issue, members could not take a break until the impasse was resolved.

Meagher likened the process to a mountain climbing expedition, difficult and exhausting. But 102 days after Principi assigned the project, it was completed.

'You want to come to the conclusion that you either need an [enterprise architecture] or you don't, and if you do, I don't know if there is any way to do it a little bit.'

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