House Veterans Affairs is Having Trouble Hiring Tech Experts

Rep. Mark Takano

Rep. Mark Takano Kevin Wolf/AP

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The group’s struggle reflects the growing shortage of tech talent on Capitol Hill.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee is struggling to recruit the experts it needs to effectively monitor the multibillion-dollar electronic health record overhaul at the Veterans Affairs Department, according to the committee's chief.

As the committee staffs up for the 116th Congress, Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., is working to build a deep bench of health IT specialists to help lawmakers better understand the numerous tech troubles that plague Veterans Affairs. Such expertise would be particularly useful for the Technology Modernization subpanel, which is responsible for overseeing a $10 billion contract with Cerner to modernize the agency’s electronic health record platform, Takano said Sunday at SXSW.

But, according to him, those experts are proving hard to come by.

“You need that combination of someone with the technical expertise, but also the policy knowledge, and [recruit] that person for a price they’re willing to accept,” he told Nextgov. “They’re usually very valuable in the ... job market, so finding that person who wants to have this be their work is my challenge.”

Veterans Affairs faces problems with tech on multiple fronts, but the EHR modernization stands out as one of its most significant challenges. The agency has tried and failed multiple times to overhaul its outdated VistA platform, and less than a year into the most recent attempt, it added $350 million in personnel costs that weren't included in the original contract. Last month, officials told Congress the project could grow even more expensive as it proceeds.

In the years ahead, Takano said, the subcommittee will focus heavily on streamlining the project’s ambiguous management structure within Veterans Affairs and enabling officials to make decisions more quickly as the system takes shape. It also aims to define the agency’s authority relative to the Pentagon as the two work to create interoperable platforms, he said.

Though both these efforts revolve around organizational challenges, he said, technical knowledge of EHR platforms will also be critical to the group’s oversight efforts. And Takano believes retaining that expertise will be just as important as recruiting it. As one of the largest health IT implementations in history, the Cerner project comes with a unique set of challenges, and a high turnover of staffers could keep the committee from building long-term knowledge, according to Takano.

“I want them for more than just one session of Congress,” he said during a panel. “I want to keep this staff a lot longer because it’s going to take a lot longer to get all this to work out.”

The committee’s struggle to recruit and retain a highly trained staff reflects a broader shortage of technological expertise on Capitol Hill.

During a panel, Takano and other federal experts spoke to ways tightening budgets and growing tech policy portfolios have stretched congressional staffs thin. Few lawmakers come from technical backgrounds, so they rely heavily on their staff to get them up to speed on the latest issues. But like federal agencies, Congress is largely unable to compete with the high salaries available to technologists in the private sector, so convincing those people to join government can be a tough sell.

To address the knowledge deficit, Takano and Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel both advocated for reviving the Office of Technology Assessment, which was shuttered in 1995. As a nonpartisan advisory group, the office could help lawmakers better understand emerging technologies, as well as the implications of any related policies they propose, they said.

Takano also said he’d support programs that bring industry experts to Capitol Hill for short-term stints in public service, an approach that’s been successful in other government groups like the U.S. Digital Service.

“I do know there are people in the private sector who make a lot of money who are looking to do something meaningful,” he told Nextgov. “Think about a system that integrate[s] millions of records, prevent[s] needless deaths … improve[s] health and save[s] the government a lot of money. This would be huge.”

Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify that $350 million in personnel costs is not part of the original $10 billion contract.