Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki took the unheard of decision late last week to temporarily halt 45 information technology projects which are either behind schedule or over budget. These projects, Shinseki said, will be reviewed, and he and the VA's CIO Roger Baker will then determine whether individual IT projects should be continued or scrapped.
No further development will occur and expenditures on the suspended projects will be minimized. In addition, a project plan that meets the requirements of Program Management Accountability System (PMAS) must be created by the project managerof the troubled program and approved by CIO Baker before resuming.
Secretary Shinseki said in the press release that the:
"VA has a responsibility to the American people, who are investing millions of dollars in technology projects, to deliver quality results that adhere to a budget and are delivered on time. They need to have confidence that the dollars they are spending are being effectively used to improve the lives of our Veterans."
CIO Baker in a related Government Executive article gave an example of what he is facing. He said that the VA had failed to develop a system to schedule patient appointments at its hospitals after spending eight years and $167 million. The development, which was suspended earlier in the year, never delivered even a portion of one workable application to VA clinics or hospitals.
I think that the potential impact of what Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker did (and are planning to do) could mark the beginning of a sea change in federal as well as state and local IT governance.
First, in one fell swoop, Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker put VA IT vendors and government managers on notice that they are going to be held publicly accountable for the status of their IT programs, and there will be no hesitation to cancel them if the programs aren't managed properly. Actions, it appears, have real consequences now at the VA.
Second, IT vendors who won programs by aggressively bidding low and hoping to make up their profits on change order requests may find that they just bought themselves a whole load of trouble. The common practice throughout government of "buying into" IT contracts (and government managers turning a blind eye to it) just got a lot more expensive to both vendors and government managers, at least at the VA.
Third, every IT project at the VA is now going to have to show real value for money. The promised rewards of an IT project need to surpass the development and operational risks involved. The PMAS that CIO Baker is putting into place along with the new government IT Dashboard, is going to make it very difficult to hide a troubled IT project for very long. Trust, but verify, will be the watchwords of the day.
Fourth, Congress will no doubt soon start asking every government CIO why they aren't also suspending their troubled IT projects and doing a full scale review. If I were a government CIO, I would start doing so now, and not wait to be asked. For good measure, I would also not hesitate to cancel any IT project that seems more than a little bit dodgy.
Fifth, if Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker succeed in turning the VA's IT troubles around, they will be setting a new government IT success standard to meet. Congress will be demanding that other federal departments and agencies meet it as well. State and local government legislators I suspect will follow suit with their owndemands to their IT departments.
There is no doubt in my mind that many government CIOs (and IT vendors) are hoping that Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker fail, and fail big. If Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker don't fail, that puts a heck of a lot of pressure on other government CIOs to explain to Congress why they are not taking similar, aggressive action like the VA is doing.
In fact, I predict that more than a few of current government CIOs will find it much more enjoyable to be employed elsewhere this time next year if Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker make any real headway in their quest to make IT projects more successful there.
I also wouldn't be surprised if more than one of the IT vendors involved in the 45 suspended projects have already called their Congressperson to try to get Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker to back off.
Secretary Shinseki and CIO Baker are promising radical change in the way IT is performed in government - I for one, hope they wildly succeed. But no one should underestimate the forces that are aligned against them - other reformers have gone before them and found that the system methodically tries to chew them up or outlast them, or both
Nevertheless, this is the most interesting thing to hit government IT in decades. It is like watching a super hero action movie but in real time.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.