OIG: VA's integration problems reflect system-wide IT issues

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The failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) replacement scheduling application (RSA) development program is part of a pattern of larger agency system problems related to the implementation and management of IT projects, according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The OIG conducted a review of the program at the request of Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, who specifically asked the OIG to determine “why there was not adequate internal oversight to prevent continued investment in what was ultimately a failed project.”

The OIG also was asked to examine the VA’s apparent inability to properly manage IT projects and whether RSA’s failure was part of a system-wide problem within the department.

The program started in 2001 after the Veterans Health Administration decided it needed to replace its VistA scheduling system. Thus, began an eight-year odyssey to implement the project.

According to the report, even though over those eight years it became apparent--through multiple oversight reviews-- that “serious” issues needed to be resolved concerning the program, “VA managers recommended continuing the RSA project and continually adjusted the timeline for the project.” The government finally pulled the plug on the project earlier this year.

The OIG indicated several factors led to RSA’s demise, including a failure on the part of managers to adequately plan and oversee the project. This, the report stated, was due to a lack of program and requirements planning, the dearth among VA staff of the technical expertise necessary to handle large scale IT projects, and the fact that management responsibility for RSA changed four times over the life of the project.

The OIG also identified problems with the procurement process for the program, but concluded that “the failure of the RSA Development Program was not primarily rooted in contracting issues; rather it was due to issues surrounding VA’s management of the RSA program and the manner in which VA manages major IT initiatives, in general.”

The report said the VA should take several steps to develop effective oversight systems and develop the staff necessary to support, manage and execute large, complex IT projects, including:

  1. Empowering, resourcing, structuring, and training for large-scale systems integration;
  1. Making sure project and program status assessments are realistic and objective;
  1. Ensuring that stakeholders are engaged and actively involved in decision making;
  1. Providing decision makers with the technical and change-management knowledge to understand the impact of their decisions; and
  1. Expanding the number of contacting officers with experience in large scale IT projects.