VA is engaging more with smaller vendors to fulfill some of its projects, but the department’s CIO warned that calls for the agency to break large contracts into smaller pieces would not ensure that “there's consistency across the key places.”
Concerns about the Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies relying on the same large companies to fulfill contract requests have led to calls for more vendor diversity. But VA Chief Information Officer Kurt DelBene pushed back against efforts to break up larger-scale contracts as a solution at a media roundtable on Tuesday, calling it a recipe for “a poorly integrated project across the board.”
“If you look at some of the failures — healthcare.gov, for instance — that team chose to take the five major components of healthcare.gov and give them to different contractors,” he said. “And you can see where the integration did not work, when they flip the switch and turn the thing on. So then you still have to have the thing built in such a way that there's consistency across the key places.”
During a House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization hearing last month, lawmakers said VA is too focused on having big firms solely complete large-scale IT projects, rather than working with a range of companies to incrementally modernize legacy systems or breaking up giant contracts into smaller pieces. According to the Government Accountability Office, more than 50% of the department’s IT-related contracts were given to just 10 vendors in 2021.
“I don't think we're there yet,” DelBene said about the VA working with a broader array of firms to fulfill its modernization projects. “I think we're getting there. And so, I still see programs that come for approval where there's a big ultimate cost behind it. And if we're going to make an investment — that's a very large one — we better have a lot of engineering rigor behind that.”
DelBene cited some instances — such as the department’s troubled electronic health record modernization project — where he said “it’s very difficult to just incrementally change things around the periphery,” but added that the department is exploring ways of gradually modernizing systems instead of pursuing large-scale replacements.
“Sometimes you face those decisions, but other times you really got to say, you know, ‘in the past, you may have replaced the whole system with the next generation; how are we going to incrementally modernize on that one instead?’”
DelBene noted VA is working to better engage with smaller vendors to complete departmentwide projects. To accomplish this, the agency has been offering contracts for these firms “to show us the capabilities that they have.” If the contracted projects are successful, DelBene added, then it gives the companies the opportunity to “scale up and do more and more with us over time.”
He pointed to VA’s Pathfinder website — which was created by the department’s acquisitions team — as one way for outside organizations, individuals and companies to reach out about working with VA on future projects. He called the site “a place where people can go to and submit their opportunity that they have to do business with VA, and there'll be folks that will triage in on the other side.”
DelBene roughly estimated that around 85% of the work done within VA is currently fulfilled by contractors, underscoring the important role that these personnel play in supporting the department’s mission.
“That outsourcing can work well, and especially in a world where it's going to take us a while to ramp up to getting more full-time, highly-technical individuals,” he said, adding that “we've got to think of ourselves as a shared team and operate that way.”
While DelBene noted the department has “a lot more” high-skilled tech professionals, he said that “we're going to live in an environment where contractors are a key part of getting the work done.”
Since late last year, VA has been working to directly target and recruit professionals laid off as part of the economic downturn affecting the tech sector. But even with the success of this recruitment drive — a VA official told Nextgov/FCW in April that it had filled 91% of identified vacancies through the hiring campaign — the department still needs contractors to support its work.
DelBene pointed to the department’s size — which he said includes over 500,000 desktops, 2,000 different physical locations and more than 1,000 systems — as a leading reason for why VA has “developed a different perspective about the role that contractors play in us getting our work done and accomplishing our mission.”
He added that the department ensures contractor efficiency by conducting “root cause analysis” to “identify places where contractors are not actually performing well,” and then taking steps to “remediate against it.”