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Time for Jeers?

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By Allan Holmes May 7, 2009

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Lurita Doan, the head of the General Services Administration for two years during the Bush administration and now a commentator on Federal News Radio, has a weekly feature on the station's Federal Drive program during which she offers up her "cheers and jeers" for the federal community. The cheers are praise for federal employees or politicians whom she thinks have done a good job, and the jeers are reserved for individuals whom Doan believes have done something boneheaded.

This week, her jeer went to the Veterans Benefits Administration, which began taking applications on its Veterans Online Application Web site, also known as Vonapp, from vets applying for funds to cover education-related costs (tuition and living expenses) as provided by the new GI bill. The problem, as Nextgov reported, was that the site was slow or unresponsive due to heavy traffic.

Doan, in a discussion available as an mp3 download, put it this way:

The jeer is for the VA, for the Veterans [Benefits] Administration. . . . And if this were the first time that the government had ever launched a Web site and ever done a lot of PR before launching it, I probably would have given them a pass. Except we've seen this over and over again where, you know, the government promises accessibility and then on the day when it occurs, they say, "Oh wow, we didn't realize anybody was actually going to log on."

Who's at fault, according to Doan? The Obama administration. She immediately made the leap to blame the sluggish site on the White House because it hasn't been able yet to put together its IT management mojo. As a result, the administration, she said, is headed for a "crisis of confidence."

And to me, it's just another failed promise. It's sort of as if I was talking about in the op-ed, the Obama administration seems to be having some execution problems that might create a crisis of confidence. There is a very ambitious sort of grasping into a lot of different areas, a lot of outreach, whether it's the banking industry, the auto industry or something as simple as putting up benefits. But it looks to me like execution, the actual ability to execute on the promise, is a systemic problem. And to me if they can't do the simple stuff they promised like just put some data up on the Web, I lack confidence that they are going to be able to do some of the really difficult stuff.

Three problems here. First, VA announced it was building the Vonapp system in November 2000, just after Bush was elected president. Second, VBA has known it had to develop this application since Bush signed the new GI bill into law on June 30, 2008, nearly a year ago. Third, Obama has been in power for just a bit more than three months, or 105 days as of the broadcast of Doan's comments. Not sure that IT management processes - in either government or the corporate world -- can be improved in that amount of time. OK, and a fourth problem: Vonapp, I am willing to bet, is pretty low on the list of priorities at the White House. It may, however, be pretty high on the to-do list of VA's new chief information officer, Roger Baker, when he takes over the reins.

Of course, there will come a time when performance problems such as this will be hung on the Obama administration. Not sure now is the time.

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