New VA CIO Gets to Work

LaVerne Council, VA's CIO

LaVerne Council, VA's CIO Veteran Affairs Department

LaVerne Council, a former IT executive at Dell and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, took the oath of office Monday.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ new IT chief is now on the job.

LaVerne Council, a former IT executive at Dell and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, took the oath of office Monday to serve as VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology and the agency’s chief information officer, according to an agency release.

The Senate on June 23 approved Council’s nomination for the slot -- one of the few agency CIO positions to require Senate confirmation.

Council inherits one of the more empowered CIO shops in government. For the past decade, the VA CIO has been granted greater control over the agency’s IT spending, serving as a model for the governmentwide rewrite of CIO responsibilities under the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act.

Council breezed through her confirmation hearing in May before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

During the hearing, Council pledged to provide Congress with a roadmap for better sharing of health records between VA and the Defense Department.

Efforts to create a joint electronic health record system have long bedeviled the two agencies. VA and DOD ultimately backed away from plans for a joint system in early 2013, with a new goal of having their separate systems be able to share data seamlessly. DOD, for its part, decided to replace its existing system with commercial software.

“I think it’s not necessarily interoperability of the systems; it’s interoperability of the data,” Council testified in May. “And that would be the first thing we would go after.”

Despite the long history of stalled efforts, Council said she’s dealt with similarly complex challenges in the past.

“This is something that is doable,” she said. “It has been done . . . It is surmountable.”

As CIO, Council is also now responsible for handling VA cybersecurity. The agency battles millions of malware attacks and other cyberthreats most months -- more than 1 billion in March, alone, according to monthly updates provided by the CIO office.

Well before the revelations about the massive breach at the Office of Personnel Management led to blistering congressional hearings on the state of the agency’s security practices, VA officials came under fire when they disclosed in 2013 their networks had been breached by state-backed hackers, believed to be from China.

In both of her two most recent corporate gigs, Council was responsible for cybersecurity, she told Congress last spring.

“What I can ensure is that at no time during my career has there ever been a zero-day infection or a hack on my time," she said.

President Barack Obama in March nominated Council to serve as VA’s top tech official. The CIO spot has been officially vacant since February 2013, when former CIO Roger Baker left for the private sector.

During the vacancy, Steph Warren, the principal deputy assistant secretary for IT, served as the executive in charge.

Warren is expected to stay on as Council’s deputy, VA officials said earlier this year.