Veterans Affairs: “Transformation 21” and Beyond

The Department of Veterans Affairs, like HUD, is undertaking significant transformation efforts with congressional support.  Its initial “Transformation 21” plan was framed around its fiscal year 2010 budget.  Subsequently, more is on the way, but it has not yet been fully released.

Transformation 21. VA secretary Eric Shinseki released his Transformation 21 initiative in early 2009.  These early efforts focused on a series of focused initiatives:

  • Creating a “virtual lifetime electronic record” to ensure uniform registration of all military service members, in conjunction with the Defense Department
  • Accelerating a “telehealth” and home care initiative, primarily for older, chronically ill veterans in order to keep them out of hospitals
  • Eliminating homelessness among veterans
  • Self-service devices so veterans can improve interactions with VA staff, and an integrated “veterans relationship management” system
  • Developing a human capital plan for strategically managing VA’s staff of nearly 300,000

He has had some success, according to an early assessment.

In addition, his is one of the very few agencies that has obtained congressional authority to forward fund at least part of its budget.  Congress gave VA the authority to forward fund its medical services in advance by one year.  This responds to the concerns of veteran advocates, who complained that, because of congressional delays, VA received its budget late in 19 of the last 22 years.  This has disrupted the delivery of health services.

Subsequent Transformation Initiatives. The Transformation 21 effort was only the beginning.  With its feet now on the ground, the new VA leadership team is putting together a farther reaching plan, framed around 13 major initiatives.

VA seems to be mirroring some of the transformation efforts that the Defense Department undertook almost a decade ago (which makes some sense, given that some of the Defense reform executives are now at VA and leading the working groups).  The Defense effort, now called the Business Transformation Agency, started with an inventory of over 5,000 business systems and then led to the integration of a number of major systems – such as acquisition and human resources – across the department.

VA started this approach several years ago with the integration of its technology staff.  It took congressional action to move about 5,000 IT staff from reporting to hospital administrators to reporting to a central IT office and giving the departmental chief information officer decision authority over major IT project spending.   But even with the major restructuring nearly completed, VA has begun re-thinking its IT investment approach.  After the White House IT Scorecard rated a number of VA projects as failing, the CIO created a rigorous process to track all of its ongoing IT projects.  It also is transitioning from a series of disconnected projects to a set of portfolios around major initiatives.  For example, one portfolio is being created around a veteran-centric benefit system, where there will be a “single face” to the veterans.

VA is also undertaking a major overhaul of its procurement system, which has been widely seen as broken.  VA reached out to 210 vendors, asking them how it could do its business better.  It has committed to train all of its 4,900 acquisition personnel in the Federal Acquisition Regulations, in project management, and in leadership skills.  VA is also overhauling its contract vehicles.  For example, it is creating a new contract vehicle for IT solutions, one for purchasing commodities, and another for buying software licenses.  Together, these could save the department millions that could be better spent on services to veterans.

Similar transformation efforts are underway in VA’s personnel office and its financial management system.  However, the greatest emphasis is on mission delivery functions that focus on VA’s recently identified four strategic goals:

  • Improve the quality and accessibility of healthcare, benefits, and memorial services while optimizing value.
  • Increase Veteran client satisfaction with health, education, training, counseling, financial, and burial benefits and services.
  • Raise readiness to provide services and protect people and assets continuously and in time of crisis.
  • Improve internal customer satisfaction with management systems and support services to make VA an employer of choice by investing in human capital.

These were then broken down into a series of 13 “greatest challenges,” such as eliminating homelessness among veterans and eliminating the backlog of pending benefit claims.

The VA leadership is planning on using operational management reviews, dashboards and “temperature checks” along the way to emphasize execution, not just planning.  How is this playing out with Congress?  In fiscal year 2010, VA received a record budget increase.

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