A Vision for Digital Transformation at VA

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Solution-focused engineering and collaboration can address many of the key challenges VA is facing and facilitate practical solutions.

I am rounding out my first ten months as the chief information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of my career has been in the private sector, but I have spent some time in government service. I joined the Department of Health and Human Services to help fix the Affordable Care Act website after its disastrous launch. What I learned from those experiences is informing my work at VA now, and I have one major takeaway: solution-focused engineering and collaboration can address many of the key challenges VA is facing and can facilitate practical solutions. 

The organization I manage, VA’s Office of Information and Technology, had already delivered impressive results. OIT develops and supports the vast portfolio of digital products and information systems veterans and VA employees rely on to access care and benefits. From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, OIT accelerated the deployment of tele-critical care and exponentially expanded VA’s telehealth capacity that enabled an increase from 40,000 visits per month before the pandemic to 40,000 per day at its height. OIT also upgraded capabilities that supported VA’s shift to telework for 400,000 VA employees and contractors, including the delivery of more than 200,000 new laptops amid a global supply chain disruption. Despite great uncertainty about the course and duration of the pandemic, OIT staff remained focused on a shared vision, stretch goals and joint priorities that ensured veterans would continue to receive benefits and care and that the department’s work would get done. With critical resources mapped to those goals, OIT demonstrated its true capabilities and talents. 

As VA continues its digital transformation drive, we know veterans, like most of us, are already accustomed to a digital experience—from using their phone to deposit a check to accessing their auto insurance card from an app or using a VA chatbot to get basic questions answered. They expect the same options from VA. And we also know that veterans who physically interact with VA—whether coming into one of VA’s more than 1,200 health care facilities to receive care, or visiting a Vet Center to sign up for benefits, or meeting with a Veteran Service Organization for support completing and submitting their claim to VA—expect the VA or VSO employee to be able to provide those services reliably. The complex, nationwide information systems that enable those services must work, every time.  

To be sure, we have been and are meeting those needs—but we can do better. My role as CIO is to help VA project into and prepare for the future, where we’ll see a greater demand for connectivity and technology services than we are currently providing. To brace for this demand and reliably meet veterans where they are, we must be single-minded in our focus on developing a clear vision for our work, creating priority-driven roadmaps and executing with excellence, rigor and consistency over time, at every level. We need to renew focus on several critical areas that, unless addressed, will prevent VA from offering the seamless, secure experience our veterans deserve. We must continuously look for better ways to deliver value to the nation's veterans. 

Our overall approach must be to get back to basics and pursue excellence in organizational strategic planning, bringing discipline to how we prioritize requirements and allocate funding. We must examine how we engineer and maintain key IT products and services, avoid downtime, service our VA customers and support top VA priorities such as electronic health record modernization and our financial management systems. We must also clearly articulate and deploy a strategy to secure and protect VA’s vital infrastructure and our veterans’ information.

On a parallel track, we must never lose sight of the exceptional customer experiences we’re trying to create with our products and services. And we should be the government leader in promoting diversity and inclusion among our teams, so that we can represent the diversity of our customers, create a workplace where people feel welcome and supported and be a destination that attracts the very best talent.  

To accomplish this, we must lead with vision, connect the vision to clear plans—with measures for success—and achieve those through relentless execution. There are four cornerstones to our vision for making VA’s Office of Information and Technology the leading government IT organization. 

Vision-driven execution

Vision, connected to plans, connected to execution. Executing against myriad daily deliverables that are not connected to comprehensive plans, which in turn lack clearly articulated vision, wastes time, money and the good faith of our stakeholders. Every dollar not spent on the mission is detracting from our ability to deliver services to veterans. We must be trustworthy stewards of resources and advocate for mission-driven decisions. 

Each of our teams will have a clearly articulated vision for the products and services they deliver. That vision will connect with an explicit, multi-year roadmap and outcomes-based progress metrics, aligned with stakeholder expectations and consistent with current resource constraints. Each of these roadmaps will articulate concise, clear priorities, highlighting what we are and are not delivering, to determine any potential dependencies or organization impacts. We will iterate on these priorities over time, keeping them up to date, so we can prioritize new requirements in the context of all the work we have to do, improving the quality of our trade-off discussions with stakeholders. 

We will also continue to deliver the technical capabilities necessary to implement VA’s strategic plan, including efforts around VA’s electronic health record modernization, transformation of our financial management systems—the Integrated Financial and Acquisition Management System, or iFAMS—our human capital management systems and our VA supply chains.  

Operational excellence

Fundamentally, the primary reason OIT exists is to build and operate IT products that are highly available, with world-class reliability and uptime. The foundation of true operational excellence means being excellent in the way we engineer our products and services, improving our security posture through the implementation of a zero-trust security architecture and instituting a culture of relentless prioritization, so we allocate resources in a way that engenders the trust of our customers, while directing organization focus and speed to the building and supporting of IT services most critical to VA’s mission. Together, these activities in these broad categories will create a seamless and secure technological backbone that allows veterans to access the care, benefits and services they’ve earned. 

Delightful end-user experience

We will continue to pursue nothing less than an exceptional customer experience for the end-users of our products and services at VA. This means developing veteran-facing products with their early input, so we can deploy apps and services that are accessible and accomplish what veterans need. It also means reevaluating the way VA employees receive support from the Office of Information and Technology and developing VA employee-facing products that work as expected, help make their time more productive and bring new capabilities that help VA reimagine the future of work. 

People excellence

We will renew our commitment to our workforce, because our people are at the core of our operations, and our operations advance VA’s mission to serve our nation’s veterans. We will advance a compelling and competitive workforce development program, with clear career pathways that can attract and retain some of the best industry talent. And we will celebrate the diversity of our workforce and pursue a more inclusive, accessible workforce.    

At OIT, our core mission is to deliver IT products and services to VA and our nation’s veterans. Everything we do is centered on that purpose, allowing us to be the leader in federal IT, the model other government agencies look to as they solve problems in supporting their missions. Delivering exceptional customer experiences ensures we honor the faith and trust that VA staff, our veterans and their caregivers place in VA. 

Kurt DelBene is the assistant secretary of information and technology and CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs.