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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