VA Botched GI Benefits Modernization Because Nobody Was in Charge, Watchdog Says

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The project, which started in August 2017, didn’t have a designated leader until November 2018, the VA inspector general found.

No single person was in charge of the Veterans Affairs Department’s G.I. Bill modernization effort until months after its expected completion date, according to an internal watchdog.

In 2017, the department set out to upgrade the IT system used to calculate the amount of housing and educational assistance veterans receive under the G.I. Bill. The new tech was scheduled to be up and running by August 2018, but the agency missed the deadline and left tens of thousands of veterans waiting weeks, sometimes months, to receive housing benefits.

According to the Veterans Affairs Inspector General, the project failed in large part because nobody was responsible for leading it.

“VA lacked an accountable official to oversee the project during most of the effort,” investigators wrote in a report published Wednesday. “This resulted in unclear communication of implementation progress and inadequately defined expectations, roles, and responsibilities of the various VA business lines and contractors involved.”

As a result, different program offices had varying expectations about the scope of the project and how the final system would actually work, the IG said.

In November, Secretary Robert Wilkie tapped the agency’s Undersecretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence to lead the effort, but by that point, the effort had already collapsed. Later that month, the department announced it would “reset” the overhaul, with a new completion deadline set for Dec. 1, 2019.

The agency enlisted the MITRE Corporation to run a full assessment on why the first iteration of the project failed and how to avoid a similar result the second time around, auditors said. Its report, dated Nov. 30, included 20 recommendations that focused largely on improving project management.

All veterans whose housing stipends were delayed during the fall 2018 semester have since been paid by the agency, Veterans Affairs Press Secretary Curt Cashour told Nextgov. The agency also stood up a special program office to oversee the modernization effort and hired Accenture Federal Services to assist with the project, he said.

The report comes as the agency is also struggling to delegate responsibilities for the multibillion-dollar modernization of its electronic health records platform.

The Government Accountability Office last year warned the lack of accountability and convoluted management structure between Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon could derail their efforts to build interoperable EHR systems. In October, Wilkie and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis pledged to reform the project’s organizational structure to streamline decision making and oversight. According to officials, the new structure is not yet finalized.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comment from the Veterans Affairs Department.