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No easy solutions for federal IT, VA's CIO says

Many agencies are moving rapidly to embrace social media tools and other new technologies, but a federal chief information officer believes the government's outdated information technology infrastructure could prolong the process.

"Looking across the government, it's not possible to move most of our legacy systems to new technologies," said Roger Baker, whom the Senate recently confirmed as the Veterans Affairs Department's CIO. "We should stop discussing how to move our 1970s-era COBOL systems into Web 2.0. It's not going to happen."

Baker spoke at an executive leadership panel on Tuesday in Washington sponsored by Government Executive and Nextgov. Federal officials discussed the challenges of working with a new administration and implementing the Recovery Act while complying with numerous reporting requirements. Baker candidly described the challenges VA faces and his attempts to resolve the department's long-standing ordeals with IT systems development.

"VA has challenges," he said. "Almost every agency develops [systems] more productively than VA."

The department is unique among agencies in that Baker has direct control over the entire IT budget, a business model more commonly found in the private sector. As CIO, he pledged to address the long-term backlog of applications for compensation benefits and to support the White House's push for electronic health records.

Baker also said leaders such as federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and federal CIO Vivek Kundra will drive innovations that will help more federal employees embrace Web 2.0 tools. But he cautioned the public not to expect the government to adopt the latest technologies overnight.

"The iPhone is not yet ready for a buttoned-down enterprise," Baker said, adding the federal government is the world's largest target for hackers and therefore must place a greater emphasis on security.

Despite an increase in vigilance, he said more security lapses and losses of private data are inevitable, referencing the 2006 theft of a VA laptop containing the private information of 26.5 million military members and their families. The department's chief information security officer resigned in the wake of the theft.

"Technology won't solve this one for you. It's people, processes, doing the right thing every day," Baker said. "I realize it isn't politically correct to talk about the laptop that was lost, but everyone needs to recognize the person who lost the laptop was working from home to get the job done. Were the right choices made? No. But it's pretty hard to fault someone for taking work home."

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