Sean Kelley has a model for his vision of efficiency at the Veterans Benefits Administration: the private sector.

As deputy CIO and IT account manager for the VBA and the Veteran Experience team, Kelley is tasked with transforming how the VA operates with an eye toward customer service.

Kelley sat down with Senior Staff Reporter Carten Cordell to talk about how VA can develop a user-centered approach that mirrors some of the high density demand seen in the corporate world.

Q. It's been more than six months since you came back to VA as deputy CIO. Can you talk about the progress you've seen and what you are looking to do?

A. These are some really interesting roles: the account management for benefits and veteran experience, the Veteran Health Administration — or the health portfolio — and then the corporate portfolio.

It is really something new within government to be a strategic partner with our customers and make sure that we're looking at the future of the customer, not just answering service requests. So that's what we've been doing, mapping out these portfolios and really [taking a] hard look at what's going on in each administration and where we want to go in the future.

Q. There's a big focus in government on innovation and user-centered design. It seems like VA is particularly poised to take advantage of that. What kind opportunities do you see for the agency?

A. Well, the Veteran Experience office, one, is a huge help with that because they do a lot of user-centered design. My portfolio, along with [VA Chief Information Officer LaVerne] Council and the digital health platform and bringing that together, is looking at what the veteran really needs. Asking the veteran what they need and then delivering what they need. Our office and our transformation of [the Office of Information and Technology] has been set up to really support innovation in the future.

Q. What qualities are you looking for in government executives and employees to try to foster that change moving forward?

A. Our core principles are transparency, accountability, innovation and teamwork, and bringing those together in any executive that wants to come to the VA is going to be very, very important.

Innovation starts in the field, but being able to bring that innovation in a way that can be an enterprise

approach. VA has never been short of innovation. The [Veterans Information Systems and Technology Architecture] was created through innovation efforts. Making sure that we can actually bring innovation through in a way that can be put across the enterprise securely and in enterprise fashion is really what we're looking for in the future.

Q. The private sector has often been able to work with government on innovative solutions, but it seems like the partnership has gotten stronger of late. Can you talk about its role in working with the VA?

A.

I think a couple things we’re doing is, one, OI&T is bringing best practices. So we’re bringing in the [Information Technology Infrastructure Library]. We are going to be an ITIL shop from our service side. With the [Enterprise Program Management Office] stand-up, we’re going to be agile. So we’re going to be putting out releases as we go in sprints so that we make sure that we’re delivering innovative solutions that the customer can see, the customer can feel and then make sure that we’re actually delivering what they ask for.

Q. Can you talk about the transformation efforts you have going on at OI&T right now?

A.

There were five main offices that were created for the OI&T transformation. ... The [Enterprise Program Management Office] is going to be the control tower and is going to be using agile methodology that will make sure that we're delivering fast release sprints as we deliver the programs to the customer.

The Account Management Office is going to make sure that each customer has a strategic partner in OI&T to plan for the future. The Strategic Sourcing Office is to make sure we're getting the right industry partners with the right skill sets to bring innovation. Quality & Compliance is making sure that we're bringing in quality solutions, but also complying with any mandates that we may have. And then finally is the Data Management office, which is going to make sure that we have a centralized authoritative data source for our veterans, but also our line of business is to use.

Q. You mentioned strategic sourcing. That's something that's really big in government right now. How does it specifically benefit VA?

A.

Strategic sourcing is going to help us bring in an industry partner in the innovation that we're looking for. If we can't bring in those innovative minds from the outside in the industry, then it's going to be very hard in the VA to be innovative. As well as HR in bringing in the new, fresh blood talent that has those innovative ideas and pairing them with folks that have been in the VA, know how to operate and know how to navigate the organization. Those are going to be key. Strategic sourcing is just one of those major things that we have to nail down and be very good at and bring in the right industry partners on board to help us get there.

Q. Another popular trend in government is the utility of open data and IT modernization. As a customer service-based agency, what are the possibilities for VA that you see in both of those arenas?

A.

Legacy modernization is going to be a huge drive across federal government. I think it was the FCC CIO that said the other day that we're already behind the curve if we have legacy systems. We're taking a look at all legacy systems and seeing where modernization efforts can happen quickly and when those need to happen so that we can drive that performance to have the platforms needed to sustain the future. As well as the Office of Data Management, which I mentioned, that is going to help bring all of our data together and have an authoritative source that is reliable for our line of businesses. Then our veterans will be able to look at things across the way and not have to change their address every time they go to one of the administrations, but also our lines of businesses will be able to look at the data and be able to use it and have accurate data. Right now we have a lot of silos of data, and we're bringing that all together.

Q. Talking about customer service, what kind of inspirations have you derived from the private sector and how does that best apply to what you're trying to achieve at VA?

A.

VA wants to make sure that we deliver on Abraham Lincoln's promise to the veteran, and that's our first priority, but we also want to make sure that we'll make it as quality experience as they come. You know my favorite [inspiration] if the Disney Company were in your hospital and many of the Disney philosophies, I believe in those. As we look at the private sector in my field as health care, a lot of hospitals are closing, are merging and yet Disney has a 70 percent return rate. So hopefully when a veteran comes in, they have access. We want to make sure they get there. We want to make sure the system supports what we need to support, but also we want to make sure that that is a very high-quality experience when they come to our facilities.

Q. Is Disney an inspiration because of its large customer base? What about that company really stands out to you?

A.

To me it’s that every fiber of every employee in Disney believes in making sure that it’s a magical experience. I believe that every employee in the Veterans Administration believes in and cares about our veterans. We want to make sure that they get what they need and they're happy when they leave; that's who we are.

Ms. Council did a great job of ensuring that when IT — because we're behind the scenes and are a support element — when we thought about a customer, we don't think that the lines of business are our customer. If we go straight through, we know our veteran is our customers, and in the VA, we believe it's "My veteran." Every veteran is "My veteran." So that is where we want to be, when they walk into our facility, they're "My veteran." We want to make sure that they’re cared for and every piece and everything we do is there to support them.