With over 28 years of Marine Corps service to his credit, Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology and Chief Information Officer James Gfrerer has a personal stake in the agency’s ability to meet its mission.
It’s a vast mission, encompassing the Veterans Benefits, Veterans Health and National Cemetery administrations. With some 8,000 employees, the Office of Information and Technology leverages an average budget of nearly $5 billion to execute the enterprise IT strategy, transform the business, operate the network infrastructure and secure all applications and systems. All of this to support the second largest federal agency, with over $100 billion of discretionary spend, over 400,000 employees, nearly 2,000 facilities, supporting over 9.5 million enrolled veterans.
WashingtonExec talked with Gfrerer to get more insight into OIT’s work and priorities, how VA modernizes and how industry can help support those efforts.
How do you approach IT management across VA?
Every CIO is a business partner, and that’s the way we characterize what we do. We are a full-fledged business partner, actively engaging our business lines every day. More specifically, every CIO has the ability to do three things: run the enterprise; grow and plan for additional demand; and transform.
Running an enterprise with over 500,000 endpoints, and so many facilities, is challenging. OIT is increasingly leveraging automation to improve availability of systems, as well as create self-service opportunities for the growing user base. VA has grown over 100,000 employees in the past decade, so another priority is to do accurate cost-capture around this growth. VA is a technology business management leader in the federal space, running OIT as a business, which is a top priority.
In terms of transformation, technology is a tool, a pathway. “Modernizing” could be moving an application from an on-premise environment into a cloud environment. “Modernization” is about the conversation you have with your business lines about how that technology can really enhance their process. Business process reengineering is a big part of that journey, so that VA’s business lines are properly integrating modern tools/systems that we are introducing into our environment.
Can you give some recent examples of modernization in VA?
We’re working with Veterans Benefits Administration’s Compensation and Pension service right now around automating delivery of a whole group of benefits. Together, we are able to now deliver decisions around eligibility in days, where a manual process had previously taken weeks.
Likewise, our veterans’ benefits people are always overworked. We are using technology to apply the right business rules, to apply automation to get to a faster decision. For instance, a claim that previously took seven months to process now is down to about 90 days. In the case of one set of data, using machine learning, we were able to get the right decision 92% of the time. Imagine that we could reduce the workload by nine-tenths in terms of the manual intervention around claims decisions.
How has modernization benefited VA during COVID?
Pre-pandemic, we were largely working on-premise with only about 60,000 employees remotely accessing services. At the high point of COVID, we were up to 170,000. In March, we rapidly provisioned the workforce with the technology and the services they needed to work from home. That took a tremendous partnership with our infrastructure vendors at our four Trusted Internet Connection gateways, ultimately being able to provision up to 500,000 concurrent, remote users.
The first thing you have to do in any crisis is to put the right focus on it. I immediately appointed an executive in charge: Susan Perez, who’s my chief of staff, became our COVID executive in charge. I put Deputy CIO for Account Management Paul Brubaker as scrum leader over the 10 different workstreams who were delivering on these products and services focused on COVID. As a result, we’re delivering every day on needed business outcomes, “staying ahead of demand.”
Looking beyond COVID, how can GovCons most effectively support VA’s efforts?
I’d tell them first and foremost: Look at our digital strategy. It talks about the specific areas that we’re working in. For example, we are on a journey from CapEx to OpEx, getting out of buying our own capabilities and trying to go more to a commoditized, more flattened or more predictable operating-expense mentality.
We are also looking to utilize “best of breed” commercial applications. You can look across all of our Solution Delivery portfolio and see that we are building an enterprise of best of breed applications. We can’t buy everything, so we are focused on buying the right capabilities, the right solutions and products, and working with/training our business partners.
How can GovCons interact with you most effectively?
We have an Office of Strategic Sourcing headed by our Deputy Chief Information Officer Ms. Luwanda Jones. That’s the front door. She and her team will ultimately work with our service lines, and then have the right conversations with our businesses to realize how a product or service nests and provides value to our business partner.
I’ve said this to some vendors: Don’t go have a meeting with our VA business partners without OIT. That’s a pretty easy way to not start off on the right foot. Even with an existing vendor, we need to do the initial triage on a new solution. From there, OSS and our Account Management Office will then engage the right people within VA. We want to have everyone at the table.
How are you strategizing around IT needs for the longer term?
The biggest thing we’re working on is right-sizing the budget and right-sizing the intake process: The conversations with our business partners, with the business lines and the staff offices. Together, we’re setting a longer-term, multiyear strategy that’s focused on their business outcomes.
Contractors can support us by focusing on the business outcomes and the value to the veteran, and by thinking in terms of a multiyear plan. But we also need them to be agile. Sometimes, we just want to get in with what we can deliver quickly, in the near term. So it’s about the multiyear, but it’s also about meeting the current business need.
You’re a veteran and a consumer of VA health care as well. What does this work mean to you?
We have over 8,000 people in OIT and 60% of them are veterans. For them, and for me, it’s not just business. It’s personal – personal in a very good way.
I have been in this role 20 months, and I leap out of bed every day because my mind is thinking about all the things that we’re doing and what we need to continue to deliver on. We are positioned well. I am extremely confident in this leadership team and their ability to deliver as a business for VA: to deliver for veterans, their caregivers and their survivors.