The Department of Veterans Affairs’ inability to provide a clear schedule for large-scale deployments of its new education benefits delivery system drew bipartisan concern from members of a House panel.
The Department of Veterans Affairs came under bipartisan fire on Thursday from members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for delaying future phased releases of new software for its digital GI Bill platform, with members largely praising the department’s IT modernization effort at-large but expressing serious concerns about its inability to lay out a long-term deployment schedule.
Testifying before the House Economic Opportunity and Technology Modernization subcommittees, Joseph Garcia — executive director of VA’s Education Service — was frequently pressed by lawmakers to provide a firm deadline for the sixth release of major software for the education benefits delivery system, which was delayed after VA pushed back deployment of the platform’s Enrollment Manager system from January to March of this year.
Garcia told lawmakers that the tentative plan is for the release of a new financial system to occur in summer 2024 — a nebulous timeframe that led to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioning both the long delay and the lack of scheduling specificity.
Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wis. — chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity — was especially exasperated by VA’s inability to set a firm date for the release of the sixth iteration of new software for the platform, telling Garcia “finger on calendar, please.”
Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif. — the subcommittee’s ranking member — also called for VA to provide a specific timeframe for future deployments, saying “it would be very helpful to us to be able to put specific dates against those releases, and then be able to measure over time and make sure that those dates are being hit.”
Lawmakers were also flummoxed by the explanation for the long rollout delay provided by officials from VA and Accenture Federal Services, which was awarded the contract in 2021 to modernize the department’s handling of GI Bill benefits.
Kyle Michl — chief innovation officer at Accenture Federal Services — said “there's a small number of windows across the year [where] we can deploy,” noting that the delay in the rollout of VA’s Enrollment Manager earlier this year was in response to concerns about the system being deployed at the start of the spring semester.
“There's approximately 14 out of 52 weeks of the year that we can deploy,” Michl said, adding that there also needs to be time to conduct testing of the new software as well.
But lawmakers were skeptical of the need for a one-year window for the next major software release, particularly after Michl noted that the majority of the software needed for the next release “is complete.”
“Congress is concerned about the length of time,” Rep. Keith Self, R-Texas, said. “I don't accept these delays.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont. — who chairs the Technology Modernization Subcommittee — similarly expressed concern about the domino effect the delay will have on implementing the entire digital GI platform.
He noted that the modernization project is slated to be completed by the end of 2024 and said that “if we're not going to have version six rolled out until next summer, then clearly 7-8-9 aren’t going to be able to be rolled out until 2025 or later.”
“This is one system that started off really well and we just want to make sure it finishes well,” Rosendale said, adding “let’s not drop the ball at this point; let’s keep this thing going.”
Garcia pushed back on the notion that deployment of the digital GI Bill platform as a whole is stalled, however, telling lawmakers that VA is continuing to work on automating components of the education benefits delivery system, releasing more minor software updates and conducting testing “to make sure that we will continue to have those major releases in the future.
“It’s not that we're stopping,” he added. “We're continuing to make progress.”