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CIO Power Grab at VA

By Larry Scott  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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I can almost picture Rep. Steve Buyer running up the Capitol steps with the VA 's checkbook in his hands, shouting, "The first check 's for more than $2 billion and it gets bigger every year! " His audience is a group of computer industry representatives and consultants who, upon hearing the dollar amount, fall to their knees while pledging their loyalty and offering healthy campaign contributions.

No, it didn 't actually happen. But, every day, it 's getting closer to becoming a reality. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans ' Affairs, is spearheading legislation to completely revamp the Information Technology (IT) operation at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The primary goal is to give the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the VA complete control over a budget that is at least $2 billion for Fiscal Year 2006. We must ask why. The legislation will be called the Department of Veterans Affairs Information Technology Management Improvement Act of 2005.

So, then, it must be about "Management Improvement. " Let 's not kid ourselves. It 's about money. Lots of money this fiscal year and every fiscal year after that. It 's about who gets the money. And which politicians see to it that the money gets passed around.

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Rep. Buyer 's main argument centers on recent VA IT boondoggles such as the Core Financial and Logistics System project that imploded and cost the VA considerable amounts of money. CoreFLS was contracted to an outside software vendor and the project didn 't have proper oversight.

Under the guise of "improvement, " "centralization " and "accountability, " Buyer 's legislation would give the VA 's CIO, Robert McFarland, complete control over the IT budget, all personnel and all IT assets which includes current software and hardware. That 's a lot of power for one person.

Especially when that person is a former Dell Computer executive with strong ties to major software corporations and a political appointee, not a career-track VA employee. While at Dell, McFarland managed the company 's large corporate accounts and government sector. Under his leadership, Dell became the number one supplier of computer systems to the federal government. McFarland is a computer salesman and not an IT professional. Does this smell bad to you? It should!

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McFarland has been pushing for complete control of all of VA 's IT operations since he was appointed by President Bush in October of 2003. So, Gartner Consulting, an IT consulting firm, was hired by the VA to conduct a study of its IT systems. Gartner pocketed a cool $837,000 for the study.

The Gartner study, presented at a recent Capitol Hill hearing, caused quite a stir. The study presented two radically different solutions to what it deems to be VA 's IT troubles: -- Give complete control of the IT budget, personnel and assets to CIO McFarland (a recommendation favored by Gartner and McFarland) -- Or have McFarland share responsibilities with current IT professionals on the VA staff.

This has caused a deep divide in the VA. Deputy VA Secretary Gordon Mansfield told lawmakers the agency would not abide by the top recommendation made by Gartner, preferring the second option of shared responsibilities. This garnered the ire of Rep. Buyer who is pushing his "one-man, one-department " philosophy. Currently VA IT functions are handled by the various VA departments and at the regional and even local levels.

Rep. Buyer 's proposed legislation is fraught with danger. The VA is known for its open-source software. The VistA system and CPRS (Computerized Patient Record System) are the backbone of quality VA healthcare.

VistA is widely used and CPRS is hailed as a model for all healthcare systems. During the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes, the VA did not lose a single patient record. Local CPRS files were backed-up and loaded onto servers that made the records available at any VA hospital.

What would change under Rep. Buyer 's proposed legislation? Everything! If the VA 's CIO, Robert McFarland, gains complete control of all VA IT budgets, personnel and assets, VistA and CPRS are at risk. McFarland 's association with corporate hardware and software giants becomes an open invitation to privatize VA 's Information Technology.

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If private software concerns become involved with VistA and CPRS the information contained in those systems (all veterans ' records) could become available to countless people outside the VA system. Not a pretty thought, unless you 're a corporation who can use that information in a profitable manner.

There is much interest in Rep. Buyer 's legislation in the hardware and software industries. At the recent Capitol Hill hearings, 36 computer consultants and corporate representatives lined up to hear the good news. They all want a piece of the $2+ billion pie.

Rep. Buyer 's legislation is not the answer to solving VA 's IT problems. It would be much wiser to set up departmental, regional and local oversight to help control costs and software development. Giving so much power to Robert McFarland is ill-advised and not in the best interest of veterans or tax-payers. And, it sets up a scenario where cronyism, favoritism and corporate control could become standard operating procedure for VA IT systems.

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