May 15 2007

Robert McFarland: At VA, Rules of Business Apply

When Fed Tech first spoke with Veterans Affairs Department CIO Robert McFarland last year, he said that his job at VA is letting him repay a four-decades-old debt.

McFarland describes himself as a restless kid upon entering the Army, but one who left the military with a sense of responsibility, purpose and confidence after serving in Vietnam. He returned home, went back to school, earned a bachelor's degree in business management and embarked on an impressive career in business and technology.

After little more than a year with VA, McFarland chats with Fed Tech editor in chief Lee Copeland about his return to government service and VA's progress in realigning its information technology.

Fed Tech: When you joined Veterans Affairs, you said you were repaying a long overdue debt. What did you mean?

McFarland: When I graduated from high school, I was not fully grown up. I went to college, had a great time and flunked out. I was a kid headed for trouble. That was when the draft was in place, and without a student deferment, I was at the top of the list for eligibility. So I went into the service.

The Army took me in and taught me respect for authority, respect for responsibility, respect for teamwork. It taught me the essence of a mission. Those were traits that I had not yet developed.

The service really saved me from being a kid who would be in serious trouble at some point. When I came home, I had the basic fundamentals to be a contributor to society, rather than a taker.

Fed Tech: Even after serving in an active engagement, you felt there was more you wanted to do?

McFarland: I had retired from industry a few months before the White House called. It gave me an opportunity to repay what I felt was a substantial debt. What the Army did for me at a particular time in my life was critical.

I feel honored to do this job and help at this unique time. The most important thing that we can do, as our veterans come home, is to give them the best opportunity to get back into society and provide them with the benefits that they have absolutely earned and should be able to enjoy—and in as quick and expedient a manner as possible.

Fed Tech: From the inside looking out, what is the difference between working in the public versus the private sector?

McFarland: I would like to see more techniques coming from the private sector to government, and perhaps more people from the private sector committing a few years of service to government.

The sense of urgency is traditionally much higher in the private sector than in government. In the private sector, I never had a meeting where a sense of urgency was not discussed.

That's not always the case in government dealings. The speed of execution is not always as good.

Fed Tech: How can government gain that sense of urgency?

McFarland: Government is a business and should be run like a business. We are the custodians of the taxpayers' money, and our job is to use good business sense in how we spend that money. The better the business environment you produce, the better the results you'll produce for the taxpayer.

Fed Tech: But government can't pick and choose customers as businesses do?

McFarland: I would submit that in large companies, and in some small ones, you don't have the luxury of choosing your customer. It's a misnomer that the private sector has the ability to choose whom it does business with.

If you're a growing enterprise, you don't have the luxury of not doing business with some customers. You have to find ways to successfully do business with everyone. I never saw a case of not serving all kinds of customers. Your products may not fit, and the terms of service may not meet every need, yet every customer is important and meeting profit requirements helps determine how to serve those customers.

I don't think that there is that big a difference between the private sector and government in that sense. In our case, every veteran who is qualified for benefits gets served in an equal manner. And I did not find it that different in the private sector.

Fed Tech: With the United States in so many active military engagements around the world, what are you doing to improve service delivery?

McFarland: Because of the theaters that we're involved in around the world, we're seeing a larger number of new veterans. Without enabling technology to interface with them, we would be hard pressed to handle that load. Technology becomes a big enabler to connect with and give benefits to those people.

Most new veterans are tech-savvy—and these veterans are the easiest ones to communicate with. We can reach out to them via the Web, and a tremendous amount of technology can be applied to serving them.

The Greatest Generation, however, is not as Web-enabled and is not as tech-savvy. But we have not lost our traditional methods of outreach. We still have toll-free numbers. They can walk into our offices, and we use other forms of outreach to connect with that generation.

Fed Tech: One of your top projects is the Authentication and Authorization Infrastructure Project. How does that support services to veterans?

McFarland: What AAIP is about is the credentialing of VA employees and their contractors with an identification card that meets all requirements for a common government ID.

It will let us verify credentials and control access—both physical access and technology access—to data, and that's critical because we are an organization that keeps lots of records. We need to make sure no one can access records that they are not authorized to access; that's built into the credentials of the cards.

With AAIP, access can be monitored and controlled. There is 24 x 7 access without having to worry about whether a password is or is not broken. The cards make the system more secure. That's really important. Our veterans' records have to be secure and maintained with a high level of integrity.

Fed Tech: How does the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act figure into your efforts?

McFarland: HIPAA requires privacy of the utmost for every medical record out there. If you do not have authority, you are not able to access the records.

VA can protect records with AAIP, and that's one of the reasons we do not want paper records because it's hard to control them from a privacy standpoint. They get left on desks or don't get filed quickly.

Having electronic records is a boon because we can ensure that unauthorized people don't get access to records. And the more efficient we are, the more we can lower our cost structure and return money back as benefits.

Fed Tech: Will VA realize cost savings with the technology?

McFarland: What we are trying to do is standardize operations and consolidate applications and use technology to reduce costs overall. And all those cost savings and cost avoidances go back to more benefits for the veterans.

It takes about $5,000 to enroll a veteran and start providing benefits. Every $5,000 that we save or avoid spending can be passed back to veterans' benefits.

Having spent 33 years in the private sector, I always think about profitability, return on investment and shareholder equity. While we're not concerned about profitability in government, finding those $5,000 increments and turning them back in for more health-care services and benefits for veterans is important.

Fed Tech: What are you doing to address VA's communications challenges?

McFarland: For years, we worked with a network that was cobbled together and decentralized. We bought circuits whenever and wherever they were needed. Our network analysis was not what it should have been. Instead of utilization analysis, we just bought what we needed, and it grew and grew around the country in a decentralized manner.

Two years ago, my predecessor, John Gauss, began to build a state-of-the-art telecommunications network. We are in the final throes of getting the whole nation on that network and expect to be finished by July or August. There will be a tremendous amount of savings and better performance, and we'll be able to cut loose circuits that we are not using and that are underutilized.

Fed Tech: What type of savings do you expect?

McFarland: Just the reduction of circuits alone that have little or no utilization will provide savings. As we start to cut down, you will be able to see tremendous savings. We're basing capacity on an as-needed basis.

One of the things we put into the contract that will soon be awarded for a telecommunications operations support system is that it offers a complete solution for managing our telecommunications services and expenses. The ability to validate the number of circuits or lines bought, consolidate billing and provide asset management is a big part of this project.

Fed Tech: The graying of the federal workforce is an ongoing concern. Do you have any programs in place to address that?

McFarland: We have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and are hiring veterans who are getting medically discharged to work at VA (see story). We've hired one for the general counsel's office, a budget analyst and some in IT.

Once veterans are discharged, they are free to seek employment wherever they want. VA wants to be an employer of choice when we have openings. We're hiring veterans coming out of the active theaters. We have a good mission that people can identify with, and we're beginning to scale up.