Veterans Administration CIO Roger Baker is stepping down. (Thomas Brown / Staff file photo)
Few federal chief information officers can single-handedly terminate failing technology projects or control their department’s information technology budgets.
But the CIO at the Veterans Affairs Department can.
Roger Baker, who stepped down this month as VA’s CIO, considers his department a model of what can happen when CIOs have this kind of authority. In his case, during a nearly four-year tenure at VA, Baker drastically improved the number of IT projects — about 90 percent — that are delivered on schedule. VA also saved millions of dollars by cutting wasteful spending on software licenses, printing and other costs.
Federal Times spoke with Baker during his last week in office. Following are edited excerpts:
Q: How has your role as CIO evolved over the past four years at VA?
A: I got to be the person who really brought a consolidated IT organization together. A lot of the work of getting the staff together was done before I got here, but making it operate as a consolidated IT organization was really what I needed to do. The big thing for me is we’ve made a lot of changes that make VA IT operate like a private-sector IT organization. We really track the dollars, [and] we really pay a lot of attention to milestones.
Q: How have these efforts affected IT operations at VA?
A: We report metrics on just about everything. People pay a lot of attention to dates around here, and they believe that if they get to a date and they don’t make their [project] milestone that something is going to happen [and] there is going to be management attention. And that’s a good thing. You want people focusing on delivering results, and if they know they have to deliver by [a certain] date, they’re going to be able to really get a team to coalesce around making that delivery date.
Q. How do you incentivize IT staff to meet deadlines?
A. Over the last four years, we’ve probably stopped 60 or 70 different programs. … Those projects have either been paused, which meant they couldn’t spend any more money until they figured out how to make their dates, or stopped. … We’ve got about 200 or so ongoing projects right now. If you miss a date and you come in and you’re sitting at that table, you know there is some probability that when you walk out, you won’t have that project anymore. So, you do a lot of things to not go into that room.
Q. Who’s in that room?
A. Frequently we invite the vendor to attend [and] the customer for the system [and] our … management folks. … We will talk through what’s the status of the project … why was the [project] date missed, what is being done to address the reason the date was missed, what’s the impact of that miss on the rest of the program, what does that miss say about the probability of making the next date in the program, and does it make sense to continue spending money on that program.
Q. How do you create a culture where failing projects are shut down?
A. A lot of CIOs, given the same authority, would do the same things. … The question is: Do they [CIOs] have the authority and the backing to do that?
Q. What kind of backing do you get?
A. The secretary had to take a leap of faith where I was concerned. Can you imagine, you just hired this CIO, and he comes in and tells you that he wants to stop 45 programs, and your answer is ‘OK?’ That sends a message … that when this guy says your program is stopped, you can’t run to the undersecretary, you can’t run to the secretary and you can’t run to [Capitol] Hill.
Q: Many view you as a successful and very powerful CIO. Do you view yourself that way?
A: When I came in ,what I said I wanted to do was in four years have VA IT well on track to be acknowledged as the best IT organization in the federal government, and in eight years to be universally acclaimed as that.
I would not yet say everybody says we’re the best IT organization in government, but I think we’re one of organizations that come into that discussion. … If I’ve been really successful, you’ll know in eight years because in eight years one of my successors should be acclaimed as the person that put all the technology in place to end the backlog. …But until that happens you can only feel pride in what you’ve done, but you can’t yet call it success.
Q: What authorities, tools, practices or leadership style directly affected VA’s overall IT success?
A: The consolidated budget for the IT organization makes all of this possible. …If you want to see the same results in other federal organizations, you need to do the same thing. …That consolidated IT budget has really been the key. From there, I like to think that that helps attract high-quality CIOs into the role. The only departmental CIO job I would have accepted coming in was this one.
Q: What does it take for other CIOs to experience success within their IT organizations?
A: It is primarily the budget. …As you create large-scale organizations with large-scale budgets and interesting technology, you’re going to attract into the CIO roles very high-performing folks. You have some now, and those folks will benefit from those authorities.
Q. What is the hardest decision you’ve had to make as CIO?
A. Stopping the FLITE (Financial and Logistic Integrated Technology Enterprise) and SAM (Strategic Asset Management) programs were the hardest decisions. They were programs that the organization needed, but we just needed to decide that we weren’t going to be able to be successful at them.
Q: How did you justify your decision to cancel the FLITE and SAM program?
A: We relied on the rules of PMAS (Project Management Accountability System). Three strikes and you stop the program. We reviewed whether or not that was going to be the right decision, but in the end it came back to we put those rules in place for logical reasons. Those logical reasons are true here.
Q. What do you consider your biggest accomplishments at VA?
A. Some of the things I’m most proud of are some of the things that are getting criticism right now. The Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) is out and in production and processing claims right now. … We’ve got a system … that we’re discussing problems the users are having versus a system that nobody has seen yet that we don’t know whether it has problems or not. I’m actually really proud of that difference. … That’s one system, but really it’s creating an organization that … can and does deliver on its commitments [and] making the management changes necessary … to let them do that has been big.
Q. What has been the biggest management change?
A. The one that has turned out to be the biggest, at least to me, is something we call the red flag process. … PMAS (Project Management Accountability System) was all about making the program manager accountable for setting a date and delivering it.
What we heard loud and clear from program managers as we started to implement PMAS was … “The organization gets in our way. When we find a problem, it’s difficult for us to get that problem resolved, even if it’s outside of our control.”
And so what we implemented was a red flag process where any program manager can raise a red flag, and it comes to my desk and it’s my responsibility to get that problem out of their way. … As a management team, we’re sending the signal that, yes, we’re going to hold you responsible as a program manger for making the date, but we’re part of your team, [and] we’re responsible with you for making that date.
Q: How many red flags do you get?
A: We see about an average of seven a week. We can solve about two-thirds of the red flags that are raised. …If a program manager raises a red flag and the assistant secretary can’t solve the problem, then how could we expect the program manager to have solved the problem?
Q. What areas or projects had you hoped to make more progress on, and what were the biggest barriers?
A. The only real barrier to accomplishing more things is just more time. … One of the reasons that I’m stepping down is frankly energy. I think my successor will come in and have lots of energy to see the things we haven’t been able to address and really go and address those.