Serving veterans is VA's ROI
Robert McFarland, VA systems chief
Robert McFarland brings a bottom-line perspective from his years at Dell Inc., where he was vice president of government relations, to his new role as CIO of the Veterans Affairs Department.
A veteran himself, McFarland is focusing on a different bottom line with VA. Instead of profit, he is working to increase the number of veterans the department serves.
He said he plans to continue, and strengthen, initiatives put in place by his predecessor, John Gauss. They include enterprise architecture, consolidation of disparate IT systems and institution of security measures.
His goal is to move VA 'from decentralized environments to well-managed, centralized predictable environments,' he said.
McFarland holds a bachelor's degree in business management from LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas.
GCN staff writer Mary Mosquera interviewed McFarland at Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington.GCN: Now that you have been CIO for several months, what are your main objectives over the next six months?
McFARLAND: One of my priorities is to look at re-engineering the infrastructure. We've got three major business lines to take care of veterans, and over the years it has become stovepiped. The infrastructure has grown up, and understandably so, around the individual lines of businesses. [The Veterans Affairs Department is divided into three administrations for health care, benefits and cemeteries.]
So much infrastructure is more expensive, requires more management and a lot more administration. Every dollar we save we can put back into putting more veterans on the rolls. We spend $5,000 on average to get a veteran on the rolls.
Since I'm a commercial guy, I've always worked towards profitability. When you come into the government, you don't have that profitability environment. For me, I've had to redefine that.
As a substitute for profitability for me, for every $5,000 I can save in efficiencies and better management, I can translate that into getting another veteran on the rolls.
We need to lower the cost of infrastructure through consolidation. It will increase performance right off the bat. Some of the things we're looking at are telecommunications modernization and Microsoft Exchange e-mail consolidation.
We literally have hundreds of Exchange servers throughout the department. We can re-engineer and consolidate and provide a more reliable and stable environment.GCN: What's the status of VA's telecommunications modernization?
McFARLAND: We're continuing to look at the telecom modernization proof-of-concept design and configuration. We want to be sure that we have a repeatable and predictable process. It's very important because it's the train all of our new applications ride on.
We're doing multiple pilots currently, rather than just taking one section and testing it. In the past, this was on a localized basis, and there was a lot of duplication of resources.
In the next few months, we're going to roll out more pilots to ensure repeatability and predictability. For example, we're working on identifying a mechanism for billing, working on a process to be sure you can get costs distributed in the best way.
Ultimately, the billing will be integrated with the CORE FLS financial management system. But first, conceptually, we're looking at what we need for billing. Most important is a solid, stable rollout. I'd like to have modernization completed in 2005.GCN: What consolidation do you expect to complete over the next few months?
McFARLAND: Consolidation is just beginning, starting with our Exchange e-mail and public Web environments. We have some very good sites, but as a whole, it's frustrating to navigate.
I believe we have to have a much better look and feel. So we've established a work group representing the three administrations and staff offices to look at how we can do the Web better, to redesign our look, have better navigation tools and a better public face for our sites. That's the infrastructure project.
With Exchange, we hope to move this fiscal year. It's a major project to go from hundreds of e-mail servers to a manageable number. It's a gradual but continuous process.GCN: How are you encouraging change management?
McFARLAND: If you expect to change the culture, you have to clarify goals, communicate to everyone what you're trying to accomplish and collaborate.
I've been gratified by the willingness here to change culture and to collaborate. One of the advantages that VA has is there's a bigger vision here that everyone understands. No matter what our opinions are, at the end of the day, our job is to provide services to veterans. It's a powerful tool to get things changed.GCN: Why are you pushing Level 3 program management certification?
McFARLAND: Program management is critical to the success of large IT projects. If you look around at the success rate of such IT projects, probably two-thirds of them fail. Contributing to the failure rate is that you don't have high-quality program management.
The VA over the last few years has been trying to establish strong program management. The first stage of that is to train and certify for Level 3 certification program managers for all the large IT projects that we have.
Level 3 certification is the highest level, which includes a higher degree of education and experience. Certification doesn't ensure success, but we want to get more people certified and also make sure that experience is spread among projects.
I also want much stronger oversight. I believe that would give us a better handle on our projects while they have issues before they become disastrous.GCN: What would that oversight encompass?
McFARLAND: Oversight would include continuous monitoring of project milestones by an organization made up of senior program managers like they do at DOD for large IT programs.
Right now, VA reviews the process to keep track of the milestones that have been laid out for a project. Most of that is done in the early stages of a project and then as it is about to roll out. But otherwise I don't believe we have anything but what I would call localized oversight through the business office of each of the administrations that looks at a project.
I want that to be more formalized and a much deeper process than we presently have. I hope to have that degree of oversight by year-end.GCN: How has security at VA improved?
McFARLAND: I am pleased at how well we've been fighting off various worms and viruses. I'm amazed given that we are so decentralized and we aren't through with putting our security infrastructure in place.
I can't tell you how complimentary I am of the security team both out in the field and at my office. Currently, we have to touch everything out there. We have some issues, yes, but we jump on them, and it is through the sheer cooperation that everybody involved in security and all the administration and the IT office that we got this done.
We have had a lot of problems in the past, and they've done an exceptional job fighting day in and day out.
That being said, we have got to get to automated software distribution and patch management, and we are trying to find the toolsets to do that. If this were just 10,000 or 30,000 desktops to touch and it was a pure, simple operating system environment, like Microsoft, it would be simple to find a toolset to do the automation necessary. But we have about 230,000 desktops, not including medical devices that are attached to the Internet.
It's a really tough problem to get out there and just lock down and secure all that. We are searching for toolsets to help us. I'm happy with the progress we are making.
In the final analysis, we're going to have to reduce the number of external gateways that we have. We're in the process of doing that and have a much tighter rein on our environment. We're trying to get that down to four gateways, with intrusion detection, seal off some gateways and transfer those users to another environment. Each of the administrations has been very cooperative on this.
We are kicking off our authentication and authorization infrastructure project. My goal is that within 18 months VA will be converted to the single-sign-on card system, which will include 220,000 VA employees, plus business partners, contractors and medical staff.