Efforts to streamline military records, services face scrutiny

Medill News ServiceMay 17, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department, the two largest federal agencies, have failed to streamline veterans services and share records, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Deputy directors of the two agencies are expected to testify Wednesday at a Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee hearing on improving information sharing through new technology across the agencies.

The GAO report, released last week, criticized the VA and the Defense Department for lacking specific plans, time frames and fiscal prudence in the effort to streamline veterans' services. They aren't alone among government agencies in lacking the fundamental "architecture" needed to improve information technology systems, but the VA's mission in particular is more visible than other government agencies and attracts more public scrutiny, said Valerie Melvin, the GAO director of information management and human capital.

The GAO criticism echoes years of complaints about the VA's complex, cumbersome and wasteful information technology systems. As recently as last year, the department's fiscal report acknowledged information technology safety as a "material weakness" facing the department.

At a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee hearing on the same topic last week, Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, slammed VA officials for shoddy information security practices and the lack of a firm plan to improve services.

"The American people are watching and expect the VA to take care of our veterans as promised," Johnson said.

VA leaders don't dispute that the agency struggles to coordinate information technology issues across its 314,000 employees and 7,000 information technology staffers.

Roger Baker, the VA's assistant secretary for information and technology, noted that the department had more than 64,000 software programs that ran on its 314,000 computers.

"I doubt that products such as 'Pinball Wizard' have a medical use," Baker said, referring to a popular game on many computers.

Next week marks Baker's second year of leading the VA's information technology department. He said that the agency was beginning to make progress and had improved basics such as customer service, but that it still suffered from decades of mismanagement.

"I had to stop our failed IT programs that were wasting hundreds of millions of dollars," he said of his first few months on the job.

Paul Sullivan, the executive director of the nonprofit Veterans for Common Sense, said solving the information technology woes was crucial because it all came back to serving veterans. According to the GAO report, the VA and the Pentagon are responsible for an estimated 15.6 million veterans.

"There are veterans whose claims have been languishing 20 to 30 years," Sullivan said.

He said the lack of progress in streamlining electronic files showed a lack of leadership.

"If the computer staff are spending days working on the computers and entering information instead of trying to decide whether the claim has merit, then the government has its priorities backwards," Sullivan said.

Baker said the VA was learning from the private sector, and he pointed to the use of open-source technology — a free alternative to commercial products that users can share and modify — as a way to reduce the estimated $16 billion price tag to modernize the electronic records system.

But Sullivan noted that while open-source technology is an interesting notion, there must be assurances.

"It's got to be simple for VA staff and veterans to use and it's got to be strong enough for nobody to hack it," he said.

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)

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