Baker drives change at VA

Focusing on veterans and halting failing programs help turn around agency's IT culture

2010 GCN Awards For Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology at the Veterans Affairs Department, the bottom line for IT is providing dynamic and efficient support for the programs that serve U.S. military veterans.

When Baker joined VA in May 2009 after the Senate confirmed his appointment, IT wasn’t doing that — far from it. “The Office of Information and Technology was fighting with its customers,” he said. “That doesn’t work.”

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Baker set about transforming the office’s culture by changing attitudes and making customer service the agency's highest priority. With the staunch backing of VA’s top management, including VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Baker’s efforts quickly yielded results.

“The entire tenor of the organization changed fairly quickly,” Baker said. “We sing 'Kumbaya' in five-part harmony around here every day. And it really has been the big change. Everything else flows from there.”

Roger Baker

Roger Baker, Civilian Agency Executive of the Year

In addition to customer service, Baker has established four other priorities for VA’s IT programs:

  • Improve information security.
  • Implement operational metrics.
  • Fix software development processes.
  • Strengthen financial management.

“Everything I do day in and day out is oriented around those five things,” he said.

Baker also brought a new rigor to VA’s IT initiatives through his Program Management Accountability System, or PMAS, through which VA suspends or cancels underperforming projects.

“When we stopped 45 programs, the first reaction was, ‘They can’t do that.’ Very quickly after, it was, ‘No, they just did,’ ” he said. “That sent a message that this is not business as usual, and this place is really going to change. And that message of discipline continues to resonate throughout the organization.”

Shinseki said that by establishing PMAS, Baker “has driven home the importance of discipline and strengthened a culture focused on our clients — America’s veterans,” Shinseki said.

Baker’s business acumen and executive skills were honed during the many years he spent in technology management on both the government and industry sides. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan, he worked in the executive ranks at several major companies, including Visa International and Verdix. In 1998, he moved into government, serving as CIO at the Commerce Department for three years before returning to the private sector, where most recently he was president and CEO of Dataline, an IT services and integration company.

His experience in the private sector helped him develop expectations that also apply to government programs, Baker said.

“I know what can be done in an IT organization,” he said. “So a lot of things that are driving me at VA are based on things that I’ve done in the private sector and seen done successfully.” Too many times in government, as projects drag on, the business outcome gets lost, he said.

During his tenure at Commerce, government had gotten in Baker's blood, he said, and in the mid-2000s he set his sights on going back to public service.

Before the 2008 elections, he left Dataline and worked for the Obama campaign as part of its technology, media and telecom policy group.

After President Barack Obama tapped him last year for the assistant secretary for information and technology position at VA, Baker’s previous experience as a federal CIO made for a smooth transition back to government.

“I didn’t have to learn about government,” he said. “At Commerce, it took me a good year to figure out how different the government processes are from private-sector processes.”

He added: “When I hit the ground at VA, I was already at full stride.”

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Reader Comments

Wed, Nov 10, 2010 Thomas Smith Maryland

I have to totally agree with the VA employee on what they said. The upper management has to come down off their ivory towers and really see what is going on below them. Most of Mr Baker’s minions below him are only puppets to do his bidding instead of having real leaders lead the troops. I have been in the military over 18 years and joined the VA four years ago. At that time, it was great, felt like a family, team, and organization! Now it is more like a scene out of George Orwell’s book 1984. He is awarded the “Civilian Agency Executive of the Year” award and for what? We in the trenches are not seeing any of the five steps he cleverly states in say “Everything I do day in and day out is oriented around those five things.” Just makes me shake my head in shame as our brothers in arms fight for our country abroad and the VA is getting awards for the protection of their data, which is completely false since the VA is so disorganized in IT structure, no central controller, and no high IA authority. This is just mine and others view from the trenches, so come down here, and see the fight for what is worth.

Tue, Nov 9, 2010 A VA employee DC

Congratulations to Mr. Roger Baker on winning the Civilian Agency Executive of the Year Award! The VA IT community continues to be broken. Baker is not willing to make the hard changes to make this Agency a top notch civilian Agency. Dozens of projects continue to drain funds from VA. All these projects are “lead” by incompetent individuals that continue to work in VA as “political favors” to God knows who. Baker has ditched a few projects. The problem is that VA has spent hundreds on millions of dollars on them already. Why are people not being fired over these projects, and made accountable to the Veterans and the American people? Some of those projects are actually critical to help VA secure IT networks…such as the PIV project. Baker cancelled it; however VA must to have spent over $300 million on it first. PIV is one project that VA needs to get right to help secure Veteran’s data and VA physical facilities around the nation. Mr. Baker go around VA and talk to the employees that work hard every day to make this Agency great, they will tell you how to make it better…Management will only tell you how to keep their jobs and what you want to hear. Just a “Sanity Check” for you…

Tue, Oct 26, 2010 Atlanta, GA

Where are the changes that are mentioned in this article? Many facilities are lacking qualified IT people to help in running the network. Getting training is next to none at best in many of the VA facilities, so how are my people to get the training they need? In the article it mentions he has improved network security? Where? We have inspectors come in to find things and we do not have the funding to fix the issue or the issue is higher than we are and they are not fixing it. We are not seeing these changes that got Mr. Baker this award and I personally thing it was over inflated like the pockets of the people in the DC area.

Tue, Oct 26, 2010

I have served my country honorably and now a VA employee for a couple of years now. I have never seen morale as low as this. Baker has done nothing to improve any part of OI&T. Bad managers are still around and the rest of us suffer because he is not willing to make the tough, necessary changes needed to truly help our organization. He has a bunch of "yes" people working for him and that's the way he likes it. Hope you enjoy your bonus, while the rest of us has to be scrutinized for a meager $250.00!

Mon, Oct 25, 2010 Washington

I have been with VA for years and I have been involved in a few re-orgs and to tell you the truth I do not see it better. All I see is the rich (Management) getting richer. Fix the problem with management (to include management that has been around for years and is not willing to change) and you will deserve more accolades. The VA has forced (literal or figurative) out quality management positions and somehow has kept the idiots that only seem to be riding the system due to gender, military status or my favorite (Hired by a close friend) etc... No one is accountable for their actions therefore the problem(s) still exist. Look deep into structure and you will see the most of your management is where your problem(s) continue to reside.

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