Sen. Jon Tester said VA's problems stem in part from poor IT management. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
The current scandal plaguing the Veterans Affairs Department was caused in part by federal IT project mismanagement, according to lawmakers.
The VA has become embroiled in scandal where employees falsified wait lists and made veterans wait months for needed care, sparking IG investigations, congressional hearings and the resignation of former secretary Eric Shinseki.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce, said at a hearing June 10 that said responsibly modernizing the federal government’s information technology will improve services and save taxpayers money.
“As the federal government modernizes its computer systems, it’s critical that we move forward in a responsible and cost-effective manner,” Tester said.
Tester also said the wait lists at many facilities were easy to falsify because the VA was not using modern IT systems to track patients and veterans in an effective manner.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said at the hearing agency management of IT projects has been problematic over the last few years and Congress should focus on fixing them.
He said he also thought the VA needed to do a better job of training employees to use its IT systems – such as the scheduling software – when 70 percent of facilities did not use the standard VA system.
“An IT system’s strengths, obviously, are irrelevant if the people charged with using the system can’t interface with the system,” Portman said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., said patient wait times at the VA were too long and unacceptable, and that federal IT management was partly to blame.
“In part these scheduling and access problems are a result of legacy scheduling systems and inadequate training for VA employees on those systems,” Baldwin said.
Stephen Warren, the chief information officer at the VA, said at the hearing that the agency has worked hard over the last several years to rein in troublesome IT projects, reduce waste and successfully deliver IT projects on time in 80 percent of cases. Part of that success was in embracing incremental delivery of IT projects instead of trying to craft new and large systems all at once.
“It has also enabled our VA workforce to become more productive, better serve Veterans, and meet our agency priority goals,” Warren said.
He said the agency is working to improve itself by blending together its product development and IT operations staff to enhance collaboration and communication for IT projects and promote iterative development.
“This is already paying dividends, as we’ve seen improvements in our release capabilities by adopting repeatable, reliable, automated processes,” Warren said.