Robert McFarland, the chief information officer of the Veterans Affairs Department, looks at how the VA has bought computer hardware and software in the past and is not a happy man, so the VA has hired a consultant to advise McFarland on a better way to do business.
Enter LMI Government Consulting. The VA has announced it will hire the McLean, Va., outfit to work on how to best go about procuring computers, servers and packaged software Even though VA officials were obliged to purchase IT items under a department-wide contract procedure, called the Procurement of Computer Hardware and Software, or Peaches 2, there was a lot of, ahem, wiggle room.
Originally, Peaches was designed for purchasing computer hardware and software, but the purchasing authority broadened to a point that if someone could find a purchasing agent willing to make a purchase contract saying it was for software on Peaches, they could, McFarland said. "Today, I jokingly say if you wanted to buy a John Deere tractor on Peaches, you probably could buy one," he said.
In addition, "Before, all the budgeting for IT was traditionally spread throughout the administration. Everybody had their own budget. There was no standard, common budget for IT."
That will be coming to a close. Information technology at the VA came under Congress' scrutiny after a series of sharply critical reports by the Government Accountability Office predicted and then reported on the unfolding debacle involving the failed development of an inventory control and financial and logistics software system called CoreFLS. During a Senate oversight committee hearing in October, Chairman Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, talked about the $342 million spent on the system that had to be scrapped after it crashed at the Bay Pines Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"Taxpayers spent hundreds of millions of dollars and the VA spent thousands of man hours," Craig said. "Still, at the end of the day, taxpayers and VA had nothing to show for it. Clearly Congress cannot continue to fund failures, especially one on that scale."
As part of a congressionally mandated restructuring, budgeting and purchasing of IT at the VA will be consolidated in McFarland's office. McFarland said he hopes the administrative structure to do that will be in place by late January. Peaches 2 was not due to expire until 2007, though the spending cap included in it will probably be reached in the first or second quarters of 2006, McFarland said. Staff at the VA had been working on a successor, Peaches 3, but McFarland said that process has been put on hold.
"I'm the problem there, because I've not been happy with what the program management team has brought forward with the document and strategy for Peaches 3 going forward," said McFarland, who has been on the job two years. "I am the contract owner. I was living with sins of the past. If I don't want to do it, I won't do it."
McFarland said the change will have not create a top-down scheme for continued development of the VA's Vista clinical IT system.
"The development does not centralize, it stays within the lines of business," McFarland said. Congress also put a hold on development of the HealtheVet project aimed at converting the Vista system from its current MUMPS-based programming language and database, which McFarland described as "too expensive to maintain," to a Java and Oracle-based system with a centralized data repository. McFarland said a timeline and spending plan is almost finished, addressing the concerns of Congress about the project.
"It's going to go forward," he said.
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