- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

A few hundred yards from the White House, a revolution is being methodically planned and prepared.

Rather than overthrowing the government, however, this revolution is designed to enhance its services to a key segment of the population: the military veteran “who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan,” as Abraham Lincoln declared in his second inaugural address.

The goal will be an “enterprise architecture” for computer systems at the Department of Veterans Affairs that crosses 19 separate categories of services and benefits the veteran — or his or her dependents — receives. From eyeglasses to education, from dental care to death benefits, there are eligibility requirements for each program, and ways to make sure the right service is delivered.

The numbers are staggering: 240,000 agency employees, 6,000 locations, 26 million veterans and dependents to serve, of which 4.5 million may call on the department in a given year. The agency sends out $26 billion in pension payments annually and its budget, $60 billion, would easily put it in the realm of the Fortune 100.

According to Edward Meagher, the VA’s acting assistant secretary for information technology, the ultimate goal will be to go from “19 stovepipes that have a limited awareness of each other,” to a more integrated system that can follow a beneficiary’s needs and enable better service.

Mr. Meagher’s boss, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi, is a committed supporter of the data project. Before assuming his post, Mr. Principi encountered a disconnect between records of a surgery he had at one VA hospital and the removal of stitches scheduled for another location: The second place had no knowledge of him. The new system will, it’s expected, eliminate such missteps.

But it will do more: It will enable veterans to track their benefits, request services and perhaps be reminded when eligibility for a benefit is due to expire. One of the first tasks, Mr. Meagher said, is to design an enterprisewide architecture for registering a veteran’s request and tracking eligibility. The idea will be to do this for all major VA programs: “Once you do it, it’s gold,” he said.

The agency has spent the past three years ramping up for this project. A telecommunications modernization plan is nearing completion. The VA also is trying to improve security of its data networks, and insure that all information technology managers have the highest certification.

A new capital review program is in place, Mr. Meagher said, to make sure the agency’s $1.4 billion IT budget is spent on the most essential items first.

Where the future spending will go is not fully detailed, although it’s clear Microsoft will capture a good share, given the enterprise license the agency already possesses.

Such “open” operating systems as Linux will be considered for some items, and the agency is looking at using Internet circuits for voice calls.

Mr. Meagher noted his office has the active support of Mr. Principi, who he said understands the management imperative for improving the data infrastructure. That kind of “buy in” was at times rare in government circles in the not-too-distant past. Agency chiefs didn’t always fully grasp the link between service delivery and data support for that service.

E-mail markkel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us.

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